Pete Peterson's 'The Education of an American Dreamer'

The living room was kept cold and was sealed off during the entire winter, as was the small guest bedroom that my father had made by erecting a wall that cut the living room in half. The bedroom was opened for guests, who came frequently and often unannounced. This was a habit among Nebraska's Greek immigrants; they treated one another's houses and restaurants like wayside inns where they expected to find overnight lodgings and good food, all for free. In our house they had to endure the plastic coverings my father kept on all the furniture to protect the upholstery, another of his economizing measures. But my mother loved the company and saw these visits as great social occasions.

Other visitors stayed longer. I would arrive home from school to find that a new crop of my father's relatives from Greece had shown up, wearing odd clothes and carrying old suitcases tied up with twine, and had taken over the guest bedroom where they would stay for months while they worked at the cafe. This, I later learned, was by prearrangement: their labor in exchange for room and board and small wages that would give them footholds in America and allow them to move on, the same path my father had taken. But in contrast to the vacationers, these visitors were a burden on my mother, who had to clean up after them, do their laundry, and cook for them when they weren't eating at the cafe. My father argued that it saved money on wages.

He also saved money on the party line telephone, an antique term that piqued interest in my grandchildren until they learned that it meant a line shared by three neighbors, on which a nosy neighbor could listen to your conversations. And I remember my mother's shouted call to "Close the lights!" when someone left a room, knowing that lights left burning would bring my father's wrath. "Economia!" he hurled at her. "Economia!" Even today, when I leave a room, I need to "close the lights."

My father's economies at the cafe extended well beyond the paper towels. To keep his costs low, he would go to the markets and pick up day-old vegetables and fruit, and whatever else he could purchase at a discount. He produced some of the better restaurant meals in Kearney with this provender, and some of his most popular dishes, like meatloaf, were made from the previous day's leftovers. He did his own butchering in the restaurant kitchen. From his experience at the meatpacking plant in Milwaukee, he could look at a loin of pork and know exactly how many pork chop tenderloins he could cut from it. He could attack a quarter of beef with a meat saw and a butcher knife and reduce it to steaks, short ribs, fat and lean cuts for stew and hamburger, and bones for soup stock, with hardly any waste.

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