My friend and I heave our bikes up the hill to a taqueria on the corner of Gertrude and Smith Street in Collingwood, a part of Melbourne gentrified by people trying to avoid gentrification.
The restaurant is called Trippy Taco.
It’s about 3pm, there aren’t many people here at this hour. Usually it is so busy that if it were struck by a cruise missile there’d be no graphic designers or creative writing graduates left in the city.
It is a sunny day so sitting ‘al fresco’ (as, I believe, the French like to say) is ideal. There are two outside tables, one is already crammed full of hipsters with sharp haircuts saying things like, “Frank just exists in a paranoid psychological construct.”
The second table is empty but strewn with the flotsam of a recently finished lunch: a crushed Tecate beer can, flecks of burrito and scrunched up, greasy paper napkins. I reflect that even this is slightly more appealing than the hipster table.
In any case, my companion and I prove to be as dithering as each other when it comes to choosing between a clean inside table and a filthy outside table. We stand and vacillate in the doorway. “Inside or outside?” I ask
“I don’t mind where do you want to sit?”
I want to sit outside but I look at the table covered in refuse and I’m not sure how my companion would respond if I said, “Outside, and if two of us are there we can surely fight any pigeons that swoop for those left over pieces of tortilla.”
Rather, I pull every indecisive person’s trump card and excuse myself for the bathroom.
When I return I find my friend has sat at the outside table amongst all the rubbish. I sit down across from her, remove several napkins from the napkin dispenser and push as much of the previous diners’ mess down to the other end of the table.
Nobody comes to give us menus so the best we have is the one stuck to the restaurant’s window and written in 12-point font. I strain my eyes to read it, not thinking to get up.
My friend removes her iPad from her bag and begins flicking through it. I am shocked. “How dare she use her iPad in my presence,” I think to myself, “what if a stranger walks past and casts a judgment about how pathetic I look?”
I deal with this in my usual style, by making a passive-aggressive joke, “Why are you using your iPad? Don’t you know that I am deeply insecure about strangers’ perceptions of me?”
I guess you had to be there.
“I’m just looking at the menu online,” she tells me.
A couple walk by us, I make eye contact with the girl as she passes, her eyes flick to my friend. I turn in my chair and call after them, “She’s looking at the menu. She isn’t ignoring me.” The neighbouring table of hipsters pauses, they all turn and look at us. I smile at them, turn back around and try to read the menu upside down from the iPad.
I overhear one of them say, “talk about paranoid constructs.”
Then, as we sit in silence looking at the iPad and equivocating about what to order, a shadow covers us and obscures the screen. We both look up at an arty looking couple in their mid-30s looming over us. He’s wearing a peaked beret and she has red hair tied into two plaits that hang over her shoulder.
“Do you mind if we share this table?” She asks, before adding, “Like, would we be interrupting a date or anything?”
I understand, two people of opposite gender sitting at a table covered with food scraps and dirty napkins both silently looking at an iPad, classic date!
We both confirm that it isn’t a date (she more vehemently than I) and we can share the table. They thank us and then stand there expectantly.
Then the woman asks, “Well?”
We stare at her.
“Can we sit down?”
“So?” She draws out the ‘O’. “Are you going to shift down?”
I look at the other end of the table at the pile of scraps and rubbish.
“But, we are sitting here.” I respond.
“Well, why should we sit down there?” The man says indicating at the far end.
“Because you arrived after us.”
“And? It’s the train seat rule you shift down a seat so the other people can sit down. It’s basic etiquette.”
Broken by this infallible logic I lose my nerve and go to shift, but my companion steels herself and says, “Well no, we arrived first and we don’t want to sit down there with the rubbish, why don’t you ask a waiter to clean the table?”
“Ask a waiter?” The woman responds, “Are you kidding me? This is Melbourne. You don’t ask waiters to do anything in Melbourne. They are so,” she lowers her voice, “mean.”
“Well I’m not moving, sorry.” My friend returns to her iPad.
I, on the other hand, have deferentially shifted down the table.
“Fine,” the woman huffs, she brusquely squeezes past my friend hitting her with her handbag and sits across from me while the man sits beside me, across from my friend. We are all now positioned diagonally from our companions.
The new arrivals begin a robust discussion about whether or not it is appropriate to have sex on the first date. I get carried away eavesdropping until my friend speaks over them across at me, “I’ll just have the Trippy Taco classic. Rupert, Rupert are you listening to me? I’ll have the Trippy Taco classic.”
I respond to her back across the couple, “I’m kind of wedged in here, can’t you order it?”
Then the man says, “-so if this is our first date, does this mean that we’ll have sex?”
I cringe and retract my protest, “I’ll do it, I’ll go, don’t worry.” There isn’t much space between our bench and the bench of hipsters sitting behind us. I try to stand and clamber over the people but end up half crawling between their backs, through flannel valley.
As I walk towards the restaurant door the man asks after me, “Actually if you’re going in, can you order us two trippy taco’s and two Tecates?”
“What, but, I,” I begin to protest.
“What? You’re already up,” he says with a shrug.
“Fine. I’ll order for you.” I push open the door and go inside.
In front of me in the queue is a blonde woman. She is over-pronouncing her order, “Dos burritos,” she grotesquely purrs the R’s then adds, “gracias!” Which she pronounces grathias before informing the man at the till, “They make a ‘th’ sound in Spain.”
He rolls his eyes and spits back, “This is a Mexican restaurant.”
As I reflect on Melbourne’s hostile hospitality industry another man passes me. He has a Mediterranean complexion; sports a thin pencil mustache and his bare arms are covered in tattoos of lavishly decorated laughing skulls, icons from Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival.
“Excuse me,” I grab his wrist and ask, “would you be able to give our table a wipe?” I point to our table.
“Pardon me?” he asks peeling my hand from his arm, “I don’t work here.”
My eyeballs shrink and I feel my face get hot. “Oh, sorry, I just guessed because of your tattoos and –“
“These tattoos?” He asks pointing at the chattering skulls in sombreros, “They don’t mean anything.”
I try to explain myself but he ignores me and walks back outside. He rejoins the table of hipsters, leans in and says something to them. They all recoil in disgust then look through the restaurant’s window. They narrow their eyes and shake their heads.
Then my neighbor, the arty man in the beret, turns around and the hipster says something to him, then the arty man turns and repeats it to his companion. I read her lips, “I told you so.”
The arty man nods.
“Groan,” I groan , “what have I done? Now everyone is going to think I’m a racist because I assumed he was Mexican and asked him to clean our table.”
Feeling dizzy I walk back outside to confront my fate. But, before the barrage of criticism and sanctimony can begin I clear my throat and annouce, “Excuse me everyone,” the tables stop talking and face me. I draw on all of my oratorical ability I declare, “I,” pause for effect, “am not a racist.”
Nobody says anything. “Let me explain,” I address the hipster directly, “I thought that because of your tattoos and your,” I motion at my face, “complexion, that you worked here.” I pause and think about it, “Okay so maybe that does sound a little bit racist. But I was just trying to – “
I become aware of a confused hush and trail off. Then the red-haired woman asks,“ What are you talking about?”
“Talking about? Well. I,” I point to the guy who is twisting his thin moustache, “Didn’t he come out and tell you that I racially profiled him?”
The hipster stops twisting his facial hair, thinks and then makes the sound of a ball dropping. “Oh!” he scoffs and leans into his posse, he explains something to them and they all chuckle. Then he turns to me, “No mate, I was telling them that the guy at the cash-register was really rude to the woman who was trying to speak Spanish.”
“Ah,” is all I can manage.
“What did I say about how unfriendly Melbourne’s hospitality industry is?” The man in the beret adds.
Then the woman sitting across from my friend turns to me and asks in a tone somewhere between concerned and condescending, “You’re a very paranoid young man aren’t you?”
“Borderline narcissist,” one of the hipsters concurs.
I consider excusing myself for the bathroom where I would be able to hyperventilate in peace but instead I turn to my friend for back up.
But she is on her iPad, oblivious to me.