Many years ago, when I was fourteen I got my first job, working in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge on Vernor Highway and Vinewood Street in Southwest Detroit. I remember it distinctly, because I was working for my Uncle who was willing to hire me with no experience and with no working papers; back then I seem to recall that you were supposed to have papers from the School Board to work, if you were a student, but it was just a wink-wink situation. I was working at a gas station, and for some of the readers, it may seem odd, but back then when someone pulled in for gas, the attendant not only pumped the gas, washed all the windows, checked the tire pressure, checked the fluid levels for the oil, transmission, brakes and radiator. This was spectacular service when you consider that the price of gas with tax was dirt cheap, because that summer there was a “gas war” and I remember pumping gas at 19.9 cents a gallon (and that is not a mistake). I also remember that I had to learn where the gas tank feeder was located on a variety of cars; some were behind doors on the side, some were behind the license plate holder, and then others like the Cadillac’s that had fins you had to push a button on the light assembly and swivel the whole fin assembly upwards to pump the gas into the tank. One of the other unique memories of this job was that I only had one uniform for the week and it got pretty soiled at times from gasoline, oil, grease, grime and other forms of dirt that could be found on an automobile at the time. I would have to take the Baker Bus Line from my neighborhood to where the gas station was, as my hours started after the station opened up, the real perk of the job was that several times a week, my Uncle would take me out for dinner in Downtown Detroit at The Sheik Restaurant which was located on the outskirts of Downtown, it was even outside of the old Greektown area. I mention this because my Uncle was a regular there and he always had a fresh uniform to change into, and I was in my one issue uniform, so hence we were always seated way in the back in a secluded corner because of my appearance, but what did I care.
The Sheik Restaurant was rather unique back then as it offered Lebanese cuisine, which was different from the food in Greektown, but it was close enough to the great Armenian food that I had grown up on that it was not a stretch. I also think that they “zinged” up the dishes that my Uncle ordered, because he was a regular patron, and our families always ate very spicy and hot foods. I never saw a menu, because my Uncle would just start ordering food. The first course would be platters of cold rice grape leaves with lemon juice, Kibee Nyee (a triple ground raw lamb with parsley, onions, Bulgur and garlic) and Tabouli Salad (finely chopped greens, Bulgur, onions and tomatoes); the last two items we would then place one upon the other, because the Armenian version would blend the two dishes together and then spoon into slices of Pita bread. Then after that came the main course and there would be a platter of lamb chops, hot grape leaves stuffed with lamb and rice covered with melted butter and crushed garlic, and a platter of Shish Kebab with not only the lamb, but grilled green and hot peppers, onions and tomatoes. We ate like we were going to the Electric Chair and I have to say that my Uncle had an appetite that rivaled his teenage nephew’s.
My Uncle had served in the Merchant Marines during World War II and because of that fact, when the Korean War erupted he was one of the first drafted inductees, because the Merchant Marines were not considered as having done one’s time during a war. Let us say that he was one of the oldest soldiers on the front lines that was not an officer. I remember him telling me several times, that there were periods on the front lines when the food rations never arrived, but the cigarette and beer rations always made it. I mention all of this, because my Uncle was one of the first adults that I knew that drank wine, and it was because of his being at all of the exotic ports of call during his stint in the Merchant Marines. To this day, I am not sure if the restaurant even had a liquor license or if my Uncle brought his own in for dinner, I would venture to say that they did, but back then anything was possible, especially when you are in a back corner away from the prying eyes of other patrons. My Uncle was very partial to Bordeaux wines, and I am sure that he would look askance at me if I had referred to it as Claret. The wine label that I am showing is indicative of the wines that he would drink, and of course, I was allowed to have a glass or two in his presence. Oh those were heady times to be treated like an adult at moments. The particular wine that I am showing is Chateau Bel Orme 1966 from the Tronquoy de Lalande district of the Haut-Medoc. It was a Cabernet Sauvignon blend and it is a Cru Bourgeois, meaning that it was not a rated wine from the great classification. We always had red Bordeaux wines with the meals, so I got pretty used to that wine, and what to expect from it. Talk about some early wine memories, and thankfully times were looser and not as strict when I was a lad.