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A Short-Order Murder 

The diner manager told the cook not to prepare the poached eggs a pretty woman had ordered. The next day, the cook shot the manager to death. They had worked together amicably for 20 years. The unanswerable why of it all will haunt family and friends fore

Wednesday, Oct 15 1997
Shortly before 6 a.m. on a warm July morning, an alarm clock went off in the Millbrae home of Peter and Helen Menicou. After two decades of waking automatically at that hour, it's not as if Helen needed the alarm, but she didn't want to cut time close, like yesterday, when the darned thing didn't ring and she slept a few minutes later than usual. In fact, Helen had told Peter the night before to make sure he set the alarm clock, so she could be at work in plenty of time to get a jump on the day. Peter will forever regret having done so.

Helen busied herself dressing for work, a ritual that put her inside the black skirt and crisp white blouse from which she served breakfast and lunch to a busy corner of San Francisco.

Especially since his retirement, Peter made a habit of getting up with his wife to hang around her in the bathroom, pestering Helen for one thing or another; maybe he would ask her to scratch his back, which she pretended to mind. They would chat about nothing in particular while she pinned up her blond hair and applied pink color to her lips. Helen's rosy cheeks needed no cosmetic assistance, and no one knew that better than her husband, who enjoyed this morning routine and, with it, the quiet appreciation that his wife was, quite simply, beautiful.

On dark winter mornings, Peter escorted Helen to the door, turned on the lights, and watched her walk to the car. But this time of year, in midsummer, it was already light outside. Without much of a thought, Peter Menicou kissed his wife goodbye as she breezed toward the door.

Sometime that same morning, Hashem Zayed left the Tenderloin hotel room where he'd lived alone for 14 years. He walked out of the blue door that looks like every other blue door in the long white hallway, as he always did. But today, Hashem was not wearing the checked pants and stark white smock top that announced he was a cook. Today was different. Today, he made his way through the gritty air that always filters the morning sun here -- walking past the sleeping near-dead nestled into doorways, through the pungent smell of urine, and by the clank and crash of bottles chased by store owners opening up shop in the very urban world between the Tenderloin and downtown San Francisco.

And sometime around 6:30 a.m., Hashem Zayed entered the Pinecrest Restaurant, where he'd worked with Helen Menicou for the past 20 years. He was tired, and he was brooding. He'd been up most of the night. He took a seat at the far end of the counter, close to the back of the restaurant, and stared at the pallets of eggs stacked in the kitchen.

Minutes before Helen arrived at the restaurant, Hashem spoke to a waitress there. It's a conversation she's not likely to forget. In fact, the waitress would have to repeat what she heard Hashem say from his perch at the end of the counter over and over again to police officers and detectives and lawyers and, eventually, a judge: "I'm going to shoot her."

By now, Helen was also close to work. She had driven up I-280 and made her way into the city, pulling into the parking garage on the corner of O'Farrell and Mason streets as usual, and climbing its ramp, around and around and around.

Within minutes, she was passing through the lobby of the garage, waving greetings to the familiar faces at the florist and the deli and the other businesses lining her path to the Pinecrest. It was still a regular day.

Bill Foundas laid claim to the corner of Geary and Mason streets and established the Pinecrest Restaurant in 1969, an event memorialized on the dusty-colored awning over the front door along with this bold claim, "We serve the best breakfast in San Francisco."

Back then, the Pinecrest had competition. The Harvest Restaurant was across Geary Street. The Pam Pam, another downtown institution, went in catty-corner from the Pinecrest the year it opened. But the competition was friendly. In fact, the Pinecrest and the Pam Pam used to back each other with supplies in a pinch -- the restaurant equivalent of borrowing a cup of sugar from a neighbor.

A quarter of a century later, the Pinecrest is still standing, but the landscape around it is vastly changed. After the coming and going of various businesses, a Jack in the Box inhabits the corner where the Harvest used to be, and Maxwell's restaurant occupies the Pam Pam's old spot. Foundas clings to the straightforward management style that has served him so long.

"Do the best you can and don't worry about what the neighbors are doing," he likes to say. Another favorite is the advertisement on his business card: "For Food You'll Enjoy." Things are like that at the Pinecrest. Simple. Clear.

In fact, it's easy to get the impression that, despite a few remodeling projects, the place has not changed since the day it opened. And that feeling is part of its appeal. To call the Pinecrest a restaurant really doesn't do it justice. This is a diner, a neighborhood joint in the truest sense, a corner of downtown that still serves Sanka and pie in the center of a double-decaf-soy-latte-and-biscotti world.

Hashem Zayed came to the Pinecrest in 1975. He was 39 years old, a recent immigrant from Jordan with a wife and children. Helen Menicou joined the diner two years later, a 29-year-old wife and the mother of two small children. They would work together from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. at least five days a week for the next 20 years. He cooked the kind of comfort food that made the Pinecrest permanent; she served it in a way that made people want to come back.

From the front door, rust-colored leatherette booths and faux-wood Formica tables line the windows in either direction, offering a clear view onto the best and worst of San Francisco at once. Theater patrons pass by here on their way to an evening of high culture, and so do prostitutes, occasionally arguing with their customers. Taxis whiz, tourists walk, poking at maps, and the downtrodden shuffle in search of something they've lost.

But the real action is at the Pinecrest counter, where the regulars mix it up from swiveling, kitchenside seats. The food manager from the Clift Hotel, the shoe shop owner, the rental car agency manager, the proprietor of the Gold Dust Lounge, a woman who works at the Hilton, downtown cops ... they all come to share breakfast or lunch and swap stories over a cup o' joe in a familiar spot. The Pinecrest was Helen's living room, and she loved entertaining guests.

Within the beige walls of the diner, Foundas and Helen, both Greek, created a social magnet for their community. The counter was home to running multinational political debate. One minute it was a new city tax, the next it was the latest idea of Greek Premier Andreas Papandreou. Sometimes the topic was money -- fortunes were made and lost in the Pinecrest stock market -- but whatever the subject, the discussion always occurred underneath the smell of bacon grease, sweet, sticky syrup, brewing coffee, and grilled meat all mixed together.

Helen usually participated in the banter, issuing an opinion, then speeding off to warm up some customer's coffee, and then rushing back again to the cash register to ring up a bill. She was manager, maitre d', waitress, cashier, and bookkeeper, simultaneously. Foundas trusted her and put her in charge during the day. Though Hashem had been there two years longer, he did not read or write English, which, for Foundas, made Helen the more logical choice to be de facto manager. Besides, she was clever. Helen seemed to be on a first-name basis with half of San Francisco and found something to say to the other half, anyway. Big shots got the same treatment as wannabes and nobodies. And Helen always met any attempt at flirtation with the same satirical answer: "I've got a husband at home I can't get rid of. What do I want with you?"

Tourists and conventioneers brought her piles of pins and presents. Helen directed people to the hotels nearby, which directed customers back to the Pinecrest. After he left the Mayor's Office, Art Agnos once sent Nick Retsinas, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to the Pinecrest during a visit to San Francisco.

"His father ran a diner like the Pinecrest. First time he came, he says, 'I want a place where I can get a good breakfast like at my father's place,' " Agnos remembers. "So I called Helen and told her, 'Watch out for the Greek boy who's coming in, he's a tall, good-looking guy. He has glasses.'

"Retsinas walked in, and she picked him out right away. Went up and said, 'Hello Mr. Secretary.' Nick called me all excited and said, 'The whole place was waiting for me.' That was Helen."

Nearly everyone knew Hashem, too. At the grill, he was in the center of the downtown universe. There is no privacy in an open kitchen in the middle of a tiny diner. He shared in the jokes and chatted with the regulars, especially women. Hashem loved women.

And so it was that on July 23, an attractive woman sat down at the counter and asked Hashem for poached eggs. Poached eggs are not on the menu; they had proven to take too long for this short-order kitchen. But the woman wanted her eggs poached, and Hashem was ready to oblige -- until Helen intervened. She told Hashem he couldn't make the pretty woman poached eggs unless he was going to put them back on the menu for other customers, too. Foundas' son-in-law, standing at the cash register looking over some paperwork, also weighed in, supporting the no-off-the-menu-orders side of the issue. Like most things here, the discussion unfolded in front of the customers, including the pretty woman, and was over nearly as soon as it started.

The woman, whose identity remains a mystery, made another selection. The day went on like any other at the Pinecrest. After the shift was over at 3 p.m., Hashem and Helen sat together at a table near the back of the restaurant with Foundas' daughter and two sisters. They laughed and chatted and visited for a few minutes, until Helen left for home, and the table broke up.

Helen Menicou was not quite 20 years old when she first came to San Francisco from Cyprus with her husband, Peter. It was 1969, and they were newlyweds. Peter, 16 years her senior, had come here in 1952 to attend UC Berkeley. He went home, met the woman of his dreams, promptly married her, and brought her back to the Bay Area.

It was a very American immigrant story. Their oldest son, Nikos, was born in 1970. Another son, Andrew, was born in 1972. Peter worked as a biochemist at UCSF, and Helen stayed home with their sons until 1977. By then, both children were in school. Helen wanted to work, but only the day shift, so she could be home when her children got there after school.

In the early days, the Menicous lived in an apartment in the Mission District; sometimes life there was rough. Peter remembers stepping out the front door to go to work one day and winding up in a tussle with two vagrants who frequented the stoop. Just as Peter landed them both in headlocks, Helen handed her baby to a neighbor, took off her shoe, and began bopping each on the head with it. The vagrants soon left.

In 1981, Peter and Helen left, too, buying a home in Millbrae. There was more room now for big holiday dinners, birthday parties, and lots of company. Shortly, it became the house where neighborhood kids congregated. Helen liked it that way. She liked children, liked to play.

During family vacations to Reno, Helen would buy rolls of quarters, but not for the casino slots. She preferred the arcade, playing carnival-style games with the kids, trying to win stuffed animals.

"She was our best friend as well as our mother," says her son Nikos. "We were very lucky."

Everyone who passed through the Pinecrest more than twice knew who Nikos was. He was the son who graduated from dental school last year. He was the son who had just moved back to the Bay Area from Southern California. And everyone knew about Andrew, too, the son who is an apprentice plumber. Helen talked about them constantly at work.

They seemed to do everything together -- Greek festivals and organization functions, high school football games, and church activities. Even a trip to the grocery store was an adventure, as Nikos remembers:

"We would be on the way to Safeway or something, and she would see one of my friends and start to wave -- 'Look, there's your friend Dave. Hi, Dave!' "

Helen was in the habit of sharing even the most routine occurrences of her workday the moment she walked through the door of her home -- who stopped by the Pinecrest, who'd borrowed money from her, the prostitute she saw chasing a john. But her sons and husband say she never mentioned a word about the poached egg incident.

Peter retired from UCSF in 1993, but his wife wouldn't leave the Pinecrest. It had been a long time since Helen had worked for the money -- she worked because she liked being there. She told Peter she would leave when she turned 50. That would have happened at the end of 1999.

Hashem Zayed lived simply for nearly 15 years in a 12-by-16-foot room in the Dalt Residence Hotel. One of the biggest in the building, his room had cream-colored walls and blue carpeting and a bathroom. He had a view of the live theater that plays daily on Eddy Street in the Tenderloin. And all of this was just $175 a month, the reward of long-term occupancy in San Francisco.

Home didn't mean much to Hashem. Honor. A man's word. These things were important to him. Often he and Robert Boyd, who used to work at the Dalt, would have long discussions about what these things meant. He wasn't close to many of his 177 neighbors, most of whom are mentally ill, disabled, elderly, or all of the above. But he was kind to them, just as he was generous to the Dalt's manager, Ruth Clarke, and her staff. Often, Hashem would bring Clarke lunch, a hamburger he had cooked before leaving the Pinecrest for the day. She liked hamburgers. Sometimes he would leave money, and tell the staff to go buy lunch. He repeatedly asked them to come to the restaurant, but they rarely did. It was an inconvenient walk to Geary Street for a weekday lunch. There were also gifts -- a music box, earrings, perfume, a Chivas gift set at Christmas. To the people of the Dalt Residence Hotel, Hashem was a charming, unassuming, nice guy -- and a bit of a flirt. If you didn't know Hashem, you wouldn't notice him here. But once you knew him, he made it a point to greet you.

As a tenant, Hashem was ideal. His room was neat. He was quiet, kept pretty much to himself, paid the rent on time, and followed the rules. Hashem often worked more than one shift at the Pinecrest and then did odd jobs at a Market Street strip club in the evening. He kept an autographed picture of the dancers in his room (along with some pictures from the restaurant and a photo album of his family).

In Hashem, the mixture of kindness and pride could lead to odd results. For example, Clarke says, she took ill not long ago, and Hashem happened to know about it. She needed some aspirin; he went to fetch it from a store down the street. On his return, Clarke noticed that the aspirin he'd bought was old, long past its expiration date. Hashem was so embarrassed, she remembers, that he went back to the store and yelled at the clerk, threatening to report the store owner to the Health Department. The store clerk came by the Dalt the next day and apologized.

If Hashem was kind to his neighbors, they returned the favor.
Neighbors remember that Hashem had a heart problem of some kind about a year ago, and paramedics took him to the hospital. Money was a problem. Clarke and another friend tried to help him sort out the hospital bills that continued to come in the mail. And helping him understand those doctor bills was no simple matter. It took a few months to straighten out and pay off the bills, in part because Hashem could not read English. He had tried a couple of times to learn, so he could pass a citizenship test, but the words, in written form, seemed to elude him. Immigration status seemed to be a continuing problem for Hashem; Foundas recalls having testified on Hashem's behalf to immigration officials a couple of times. Once, the Greek restaurant owner remembers, Hashem needed help with the INS after marrying a 75-year-old woman.

Piecing together Hashem's personal life is an ambiguous undertaking. He appears to have relatively few strong or longtime friends in San Francisco. And most of the people who know him know only fragments of his life. Friends and neighbors, for example, agree that his first wife went home to the Middle East about 15 years ago. But some remember four or five marriages since, and others don't remember any.

Helen used to tell Hashem to save his money so he could visit his children and grandchildren in the Middle East. Clarke remembers that the cook talked about doing that soon, and Hashem would occasionally send money home to his family. But money was a problem. Hashem loved to gamble.

He was a regular in the shadowy world behind what most people see when they go downtown. He frequented the caffenios, the unnamed Greek coffeehouses where men gather to swap stories and play cards. For most of the men, the ritual is a social activity of limited consequence. In fact, Peter and Hashem played cards together some years ago.

But Hashem had long since graduated to more serious games of cards and dice, games that take place later in the night, games where only known faces are allowed to play. The stakes in some of these games could climb as high as $1,000 a hand, and Hashem won and lost a lot of money on a fairly regular basis. Some who know Hashem claim he won, and then lost, something on the order of $12,000 in the days before he attempted to poach eggs for a good-looking female patron of the Pinecrest Restaurant. Of course, Hashem's losses are not recorded anywhere, but it is known that the day before the fateful breakfast order, Helen loaned Hashem $300 and told him not to gamble, because he would lose it. Hashem did not listen to her. He lost the money.

"In my mind, he thought Helen brought him a jinx," says Foundas. The owner of the Pinecrest hated Hashem's gambling. In fact, three years ago, Foundas asked Hashem to leave the restaurant. He felt that Hashem was too tired to work after staying up all night gambling. But Helen stepped in. She called Hashem and told him to come back, that she would speak to Foundas on his behalf. It is a painful memory for the boss to recount.

"Helen felt bad for him. She came to me and said, 'We know his weakness. He needs this job. He's a good worker. Bring him back,' " says Foundas, who did.

"He never would have been here if it were not for her."

Bill Foundas has missed perhaps five weeks of work since opening the Pinecrest in 1969. "If you're going to run a restaurant, you have to be there," he likes to say. But on July 24, Foundas was not there. He was in the hospital for some relatively minor tests.

At about 6:50 a.m., Helen came into the diner for work and sat down at the counter, in the seat closest to the cash register -- and the door -- with a cup of coffee. Minutes later, Hashem got up from his seat at the opposite end of the counter and walked over to Helen. He told her that he didn't like what she'd said to him the day before about the poached eggs. He was upset, he told Helen, and had not slept all night. (In fact, Hashem had been gambling that night.)

Helen tried to reason with him. This was not a big deal, she said. The restaurant had never served off-menu food. But, according to the accounts of those who were there, Hashem would have none of it. He told Helen he was not going to work that day, and headed for the door. About halfway there, Hashem stopped. He turned around and pulled out a semiautomatic handgun from his jacket. Some people remember him saying, "I'm going to shoot you." Whether he said anything to her first or not, Hashem then shot Helen, the woman he had worked with for 20 years, in the right arm.

There were screams and people scrambling this way and that. Helen got out of the chair and ran behind the counter. But it was no use. Hashem shot her again in the back, and she fell to the floor. Then he walked closer and fired another shot into her neck, leaving Helen Menicou lying in a pool of blood on the floor.

As the diner erupted into full-scale pandemonium, someone called 911. Someone else held Helen's hand and told her to hang on. Hashem walked to the front of the restaurant and waited for the police.

Soon, firemen and paramedics rushed in and began trying to make Helen's body function, for even a few more minutes. Officer Richard Benjamin had started his shift at the S.F. Police Department's Central Station less than an hour before. Like most of the folks assigned to the station, he knew Hashem, and he knew Helen. The call was surprising. The scene was dumbfounding. On another morning, there might have been a cop or two sitting at the counter. An officer disarmed Hashem and took him away from the restaurant kitchen for the last time. More officers and detectives came. There was mounting dismay. Every one of the responding officers, it seemed, knew Helen and Hashem.

An ambulance whisked Helen from her beloved Pinecrest to the sterile world of the San Francisco General Hospital Emergency Room. Doctors put an air tube down her throat and stuck an IV in her neck, but it was too late. Helen was pronounced dead at 7:22 a.m.

On a sunny September Friday, Peter Menicou opens the door of his Millbrae home to usher in a visitor. From the front door of the house, you can see out the back window all the way to San Francisco International Airport and the bay.

"I've been cleaning the house. How did I do?" he asks, as though this home had ever been anything short of immaculate -- every ceramic teacup in place, every corner of glass glimmering, every photograph dusted.

"My wife used to clean the house on Friday afternoons," he adds. "I want to keep that up."

For nearly three months Helen's family and friends -- and for that matter, a good portion of the rest of San Francisco -- have tried to find some reason for her senseless death. No reason has wanted to be found.

More than 500 people gathered at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church on Brotherhood Way to memorialize Helen Menicou. A great many of them were San Franciscans whom she'd served in the restaurant, and they flowed past her casket showing immeasurable and genuine grief. When Helen left Holy Trinity, she had a police escort to the cemetery.

"It struck me, here's someone who didn't come from a famous background with an escort to the cemetery," remembers Father Anthony Kosturos. "She had come here from Cyprus a young lady, and through all her years here managed to touch so many people.

"She was famous in her own right."
The California Assembly adjourned in honor of her memory on July 28. The calls and letters and cards have been constant and from every corner -- a poem from an unknown child, a call from a Saudi prince, notes from all over the country. Every day there are invitations for lunch or dinner. But the attention paid to Helen's death is not all motivated by kindness. The tale of the "poached egg killing" has spread all the way to a supermarket tabloid.

Peter, the scientist, finds some comfort in reviewing a friend's note about the relationship between logic, time, and feelings. His sons are devastated, bitter with the knowledge that their mother's grandchildren will never know her. It's been a tediously painful few months.

"I lost the sunshine half of my life," Menicou says, sitting at his kitchen table. "She cared for me so deeply. She stood by my side every time. She was going to take care of me in my old age. That dream is gone.

"I don't know why this man did this to me. The man I considered a friend. A man I helped repeatedly."

Behind him, the address and phone number to the Pinecrest still hangs on the wall, next to the phone. Photographs of Helen and various other people decorate the refrigerator. Her perfume still sits on a tray in the bathroom.

Whatever personal demons made Hashem brutally murder his friend and co-worker are, at the least, unique. In fact, the best predictor of violent behavior, according to psychiatric experts, is previous violent behavior, something seemingly absent in this case.

"The poached egg issue could be a stressor, but there has to be more underlying issues that would make it go from that stressor to that reaction," says Mark Leary, deputy chief of psychiatry at San Francisco General Hospital.

"It's clearly a very extreme reaction. The fact that he would wait for the police suggests that he knew what the consequences would be and felt hopeless enough about the future that that would not dissuade him," Leary observes. "It's almost a passive suicide attempt."

Just yet, Hashem Zayed is not telling the world why he shot Helen Menicou to death in front of numerous witnesses. He sent word back to the Tenderloin that he did not want visitors in the San Francisco County Jail, where he awaits a trial that is scheduled to begin in January. He did not want friends to see him there.

He has pleaded not guilty to the murder charge he faces, likely the signal of an insanity defense. Public Defender Steven Rosen, who is representing Hashem, refused to discuss the case.

Sometime toward the end of July, however, Hashem called Clarke, the hotel manager, and arranged for someone to collect his belongings.

"He was sobbing on the phone," Clarke remembers. "He said he was sorry that he'd embarrassed us like this."

"I can't believe this happened. I can't believe he did this bad thing," she says. "It made me second-guess myself. It made me realize that every one of us could be someone different tomorrow.

"I didn't even know he had a gun."

The Pinecrest is the same warm greasy spoon it's always been, unless you know better. And in that case, it's entirely different.

The smells are still there, the pallets of eggs remain stacked in the kitchen. The menu hasn't changed (poached eggs still are not served), and the folks are still nice, though some of the faces are new. People don't talk about the murder much anymore, unless someone asks about the woman in the photograph hanging on the wall in the middle of the restaurant. And then it becomes apparent that a bit of light is missing from the Pinecrest.

About The Author

Lisa Davis


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