Americans talk funny. We don’t think we do, but we do. We’re usually too busy talking at or over or directly through each other to notice. Every so often, though, we stop long enough to listen to one another and then laugh and point.
The middle-aged Persian woman I hired to teach me how to drive made fun of me when I mispronounced Cahuenga Boulevard. I had just moved to Los Angeles a few months prior from New York City, where I considered myself a native despite the disagreements of many native New Yorkers. Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.” So I floated across the country — as millions before me had — to seek my fortune.
Her teaching method was an unorthodox form of politically incorrect mockery. When I tapped the brakes too hard, she’d tell me not to drive like a “Chinaman” and then pantomimed her head flinging back and forth, as if she were bowing. She casually informed me that African-Americans were notoriously terrible at changing lanes. Don’t get her started on Mexicans. Seriously, don’t. She was, to be charitable, racially insensitive.
I was a stranger in her city but my advanced age and inexperience amused her. How could a grown man not know how to drive a car? It was, however, my accent that intrigued her the most. I spoke with the faintest southern drawl but I also had northeastern motormouth tendencies. She was always drawing conclusions as to my ethnicity.
During one lesson she said, “You people are good drivers.”
Because of her I passed my driver’s test, got my first license to operate a motor vehicle, and then proceeded to not drive for years. Everything I needed was in walking distance: my job and places to eat.
Here’s the truth about food in L.A.: it’s pretty good. There’s amazing pho and pupusas and bulgogi. During my three year internment in the city of Angels, I was able to find satisfactory replacements for my beloved New York foods. I found some decent pizza. I even found bagels that… sufficed. But I could never find the one dish that reminded me of my adopted home for the previous 16 years. A gyro platter.
I couldn’t even find a suitable New York-style Greek diner, the kind of greasy spoon with a massive menu where you can order a meal of waffles, meatloaf, and lasagna if you want.
But it’s not as if Los Angeles has no roast meat sandwiches. My racist — but friendly — driving instructor had once pointed out an Armenian restaurant that she recommended. This place served up delicious chicken shawarma sandwiches and a garlic sauce I could eat with my fingers.
Eventually, I would drift back to New York. The first thing I would order upon my return? A gyro, a word that rhymes with “pie-whoa.”
The word “gyro” comes from a Greek word that means, literally, “to turn.” If you’ve ever eaten a gyro sandwich you now know why this is important because you’ve seen the sweaty plug of meat turning and sizzling and turning. Or, if you’re me, you’ve been utterly hypnotized by it. The only other thing you need to know is that the modern gyro is as American as the croissandwich.
I grew up in McLean, Virginia — a small town next to Langley, where the CIA has their secret headquarters, hidden behind trees — and my parents would frequently take me to weekend lunches at The McLean Family Restaurant, a nondescript neighborhood diner in a strip mall that served breakfast, burgers, and a number of Greek-American dishes.
Washington, DC is a city famous for power, marble, and an overabundance of lawyers.
It was there that I learned to love the gyro, the underrated fast food classic consisting of meat carved from a pre-packaged barrel of protein spitted on a vertical rotisserie, feta cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, and then wrapped in flatbread. I especially loved the unique yogurt sauce, tzatziki — it was the cool foreign exchange student of condiments. I preferred the platter, not the sandwich, because it came with fries, and, also, a deconstructed sandwich looks like more food. I was a boy who appreciated a value.
My parents were Texans who moved to this Washington DC suburb so my dad could work for Congress. The rhythms of democracy mean those suburbs are repopulated every two, four, and six years. It is a transient place that welcomes all sorts of different people from all around the world who want to work in a city famous for power, marble, and an overabundance of lawyers.
I was raised to regard Texas as the Promised Land. So I think of myself as an ethnic Texan and, my parents, settlers. Their journey from the Lone Star State to the DC metropolitan area was a melancholy migration but opportunity called and my father had to answer.
My folks moved back to Texas over twenty years ago and I have never returned to Northern Virginia. If I were to visit I doubt I’d recognize it. I used to bury action figures in the woods by my house, so maybe an action figure tree has grown since then.
But I did learn, recently, that The McLean Family Restaurant is still there. That quiet town has grown more sophisticated over the years, especially since the national security boom after 9/11, and I was surprised that such simple fare survived. I don’t know if the man who used to cheerfully greet my family and I is still working his usual Saturday shift — he was an old man 30 or so years ago. And even if he was, I wouldn’t know his name. I never learned his name. I just called him Zorba, which is the name of a character in a famous 60’s movie named Zorba the Greek about a colorful Greek man who teaches a buttoned-up English author how to love life.
Zorba used to correct my pronunciation of the word “gyro” when I ordered it. He was, presumably, Greek. He worked at a diner that served Greek dishes, after all. My dad playfully nicknamed him Zorba and he never protested. Although, upon learning that my mother was Mexican-American, he immediately nicknamed me Poncho. I was thrilled to have that nickname. My mother was not.
I was told to pronounce it “yeero” not “gyro,” which rhymes with “pie-whoa.” Zorba gave me precise and exact instructions with a thick accent that, in retrospect, could have been Turkish or Italian. Stretch out the “yee” and roll that “r.” He would gently mock my regional dialect. People who claim that Northern Virginia is not the South forget that it was South enough for Lee to name his rebel army after it.
So for many Saturday afternoons as a young boy, we’d enter this diner and my father would bellow “ZORBA!” and the owner, with his bushy mustache and friendly smile, would point at me and bellow “PONCHO!” My dad and Zorba were men who enjoyed a good bellow. These are happy memories for me, partly because I loved gyro platters: spicy ribbons of meat, a crunchy salad of tangy feta, tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions, grilled pita bread, and crispy French fries. And partly because I loved being called Poncho.
My mother taught me that America was a place where different people tried to accept one another as best they could. The emphasis was on “tried.”
The 1980s were not the most racially sensitive decade. Not that any of them have been. I was unaware of the civil rights turmoil of the previous decades. What I knew was what my mother had taught me. The oppression, the hate, the horrors of the system. She had idolized Cesar Chavez. She taught me, simply, that America was a place where different people tried to accept one another as best they could. The emphasis was on “tried.” I was a child and she spoke to me as one. So it seemed weird that people laughed at Asian characters in popular teen movies because they were unable to pronounce one letter in their second language. I could barely master the only language I spoke.
Once, and I remember this distinctly, my father told me a story about his time in the Army. He had been ripped off somehow and proceeded to tell his friends that he had been “Jewed” out of a small sum of money. One of those friends was Jewish. My father swore to me he didn’t mean to use that word — he was a preacher’s kid from Louisiana. It was just the word that was used when he was growing up. He had hurt his friend’s feelings and he made that sound like it had been the worst thing in the world and, I suppose, he was not wrong. This confession was surprising for many reasons, but mostly because the three most revered men in my house were Lyndon Johnson, Jesus Christ, and Mel Brooks, and two of those three are Jewish.
My dad had asked his friend for forgiveness, and it was given. He wanted me to understand that being a good person takes work. Everyone’s a sinner. That was the Baptist in him. He had hurt his friend’s feelings because he had been thoughtless and self-centered. And so I ended up always ordering a “yeero” platter at Zorba’s diner. After all, I was his friend, Poncho.
Eventually, I, Poncho, would move to one of the largest Greek communities in New York City. It was a wonderful place to live for a decade and a half: it only took 10 years for the Greeks to make eye contact with me.
The truth is, the gyro is Greek the way Spaghetti-o's are Italian or General Tso’s chicken is Chinese. Which, is to say, it’s not. The gyro fits in that category of ethnic foods that swear they’re 100% authentic but were actually tweaked to appeal to the tastes of Americans. That’s the beauty of this country: we embrace the huddled masses, and then politely ask them to make a version of their cuisine that we can deep fry or smother in sauce. I love authentic Greek-American food like skordalia or moussaka. But I also love gyros because I’m capable of loving two things at once.
The gyro nods, like the shawarma, to the Turkish doner kebab, the grandfather of roast meat sandwiches. That said, the Greeks also make tremendous portable street food, like souvlaki. I learned one thing living in a Greek neighborhood for 16 years, though, and that’s never compare anything Turkish with anything Greek. That said, cooking meat on skewers is an ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern technique. Do you know what those cultures don’t traditionally cook on skewers? Giant juicy cones of compacted mystery meat that could be beef or lamb or secrets. Those mysterious flesh pyramids are the most important part of the gyro I know and love. And if there is one thing America knows how to do well, it's a mass-produced, tasty, cheap, easily moldable protein batter.
That’s the beauty of this country: we embrace the huddled masses, and then politely ask them to make a version of their cuisine that we can deep fry or smother in sauce.
So I was thrilled to move to a neighborhood that was rich with gyros. The local Greeks begrudgingly accepted me, rented me an expensive studio apartment that was, literally, under the stairs, and then dared me to make a living with millions of other people from everywhere, speaking every language with thick accents. I celebrated my brave move by walking to a small Greek restaurant. These were my people. Or, rather, these were the people of my friend, Zorba. I strode up to the counter and politely — respectfully — ordered a “yeero.” The “yeee” was elongated and the “r” rolled off my tongue.
The man behind the counter studied my face and smiled.
“Oh. You want a yeero huh?”
He shouted to the other man behind the counter.
“Hey, Nick, this guy wants a yeero.”
I swear his name was Nick. Not every Greek man is named Nick. But many are.
“No, no. A yeero.’”
“Oh, yeah, sure. A ‘ye-e-ero’”
They both laughed. They laughed with each other, and at me, and then with each other again.