The First Event: 7.00pm
I finally rejoined my table and, a moment later, Ciro returned from his mushroom act with the results of his tour.
“Julia Child is here. She was very happy to see the mushrooms. She had a few nice words for Ben.”
“Did she order any mushrooms?” I was curious.
“I didn’t give her a chance. It’s my prerogative as Dining Room Manager and I ordered a plate for her and her husband compliments of the house.”
“Nice,” I concurred and Ciro’s pride in his own initiative and authority made him stand taller. “What are the totals?” Frankie had quietly come to stand behind my chair for the mushroom order.
“Counting the Small Room, 11 tables are getting some, about 38 orders.”
Frankie did some quick calculations and shared his conclusions.
“Everyone will get about two ounces. Ciro, can I have the slip?”
Ciro didn’t like Frankie: he was too swarthy for his Northern Italian taste. Ciro handed him the slip and I waited for the inevitable complaint.
“Ciro, where did you learn to write?” Frankie reciprocated the distaste and constantly irked Ciro with displays of his education.
“Frankie, don’t bust my balls. First are the table numbers and then how many people at each table.” He spoke in broken but very clear English and wrote in the same way and I was growing a bit impatient.
“Alright, Ciro; I’m just kidding. You didn’t count the Small Room diners in this, did you?”
“No. How would I know?”
“I’m just making sure.” Turning to me Frankie asked: “Were the mushrooms the regular price?”
“Yes,” I said.
“And I’m counting another 19 portions for the Small Room?” When I nodded, he ended the quick meeting. “Alright. I’m set. See you all later.”
Frankie would calculate costs and tell the dining room staff what to charge per portion. Rare, almost unique, culinary presentations deserved substantial profit margins. When he finished cooking the mushrooms, Frankie would take the platters to each table himself to watch the customers’ reaction and to share in the glory.
Ciro had offered his customers two choices of wines, the single-vineyard “Bricco Rocche” and another Barolo from Cerretto that was priced at a more reasonable $90.00 per bottle and $23.00 per 5.5oz glass. All restaurants charged more per ounce for wine by the glass. He had sold four full bottles and nine glasses of the Cerretto. Since the nine glasses left us with an unsold glass, one of our hustling staff found a customer to buy it, eliminating the possible loss.
Yet again I returned to my table. My friends. None of my guests resented the demands on my time.
“Dom, not for nothing, but do you take everyone’s order like you did with that party just now?” My buddy Al was impressed.
“Everyone; yes. I enjoy the intercourse, so to speak, and the customers like it too. I make sure they eat exactly the quantity of food they want, exactly what they want and that they’re comfortable with the costs of their meal. I also give away a lot, especially to college students who might be big fans but can’t afford the prices and have big appetites. Sending them an extra course of pasta that they wanted but didn’t order goes a long way to maintaining happy customers. On Parents Weekend, we’re jammed with students who, grateful for past generosity, drag their affluent parents who can afford the prices, to eat with us as Dom’s reward. Win, win, win.”
“That takes a lot of time and talent.”
“It’s easy when you like what you’re doing.”
“Professore, are you ready to continue with your story? The Northerners had pitched their countrymen strike two. Now, do we get a hit or do we strike out?” I reached for my glass.
Unobtrusively, Tracy and two of the cart-kids served our next course and withdrew. Tory had the floor to himself.
“Domenico, I’m afraid we strike out, even before many of us had even set foot on shore.” Tory sipped from his wine glass then continued without breaking stride.
“It was common for the Italian man to come to America alone, leaving his family behind. He’d find a job, an apartment, save the money for passage and then send for his wife and others. Thus, unaccompanied women were common on the passages.
“Early in the immigration phenomenon, one of these women was physically abused by a crewman who, ignorant of the ways of the contadini, likely thought she was unprotected. Two days later, at dawn, the offending crewman was found on deck with a fatal blade wound in his back.
“When the ship docked a bevy of police blocked the disembarkation to investigate the killing. Having just defined their concept of ‘pazienza’ to the crew, the Italians now defined another of their values for the police: ‘omerta,’ absolute silence. History had taught the contadini that everything you tell the authorities will return to harm your family irregardless of guilt. Despite 48 hours of non-stop questioning, the police discovered only that no one saw anything; no one knew anything.
“The immigrants, ‘murderers’ among them, were finally permitted to disembark. The press was waiting and all over the country headlines cried out that America was being flooded with alien murderers. The new American image of Italians was solidified: Strike Three!
“Oh crap!” Ponzo muttered with a slight but noticeable smile on his face, “We struck out! We suck!”
“So what?” demanded Al. “Who cares? Our grandfathers fought back, got jobs, stayed together and made good lives.”
“We all know the horrible things that were said about the immigrants; things done to them in the ensuing decades. I’m not going to tell those stories. It isn’t necessary: Americans had been saying and doing these same things, and far worse, to Africos for four hundred years. They had a lot of practice and were very good at it.”
“Amen to that!” exclaimed Big Daddy. “You’re painting great pictures, Ettore. But remember that what the Italians went through on the boats was a first-class cruise on the QE2 compared to what my people endured. We couldn’t retaliate. We were always chained up like wild dogs. Many died on every trip. I take pleasure in hearing this story and wish I could have been the one to knife him.”
“Power to the People!” Tory toasted with raised glass while his head bobbed up and down in excitement. We all toasted each other. I guess we were the ‘people’ we meant.
“To the hated, despised and trod upon!” added Big Daddy. More toasting.
“And to knives!” threw in Al. Now some low cheering and a final clinking of glasses. Then Tory concluded his story.
“A more puzzling anomaly was that the other recently arrived but more easily assimilated immigrant groups, like the Irish and the Jews, participated fully in the dissection of the Italians. Not speaking the language and having few to help them, the Italian immigrants had no idea of the strength, the size and the universality of the coalition building to grind them down or drive them out.
“Of course, they did look strange, these refugees from the ‘Mezzogiorno.’ The land of the ‘half-day’, the Italian version of the American Ozarks, had produced a strange, parochial culture and a population illiterate, abused and suspicious. Adjustment was very difficult, even alien to them. In America, these transplants, these non-English-speaking Italians, smelled strange; they acted strange; they dressed strange.
“They made no effort to embrace American culture. No effort to be educated in American schools. They sought only work: steady, paying work. As long as they had a job, regardless of pay or status, and they could live among their paesani, even in the most distressed of slums, they deemed themselves outrageously lucky and successful.
“Efforts to stop the flow of Italian immigrants got nowhere at first. America was booming and business interests, in dire need of unskilled, cheap, human pack-animals were not to be denied. ‘Nativists’ had to watch in frustration for forty years as the flow grew into a river and then a deluge. Meanwhile, the distressed slums were slowly but steadily improved to somewhat livable, and even attractive neighborhoods. “Little Italy” began to develop a somewhat positive patina.
“By the time they got laws passed that stopped the flow of Italian immigrants it was 1924 and the Nativists were jubilant. Spit ran down the face of the Statue of Liberty who stood protecting that the ‘golden door’ stayed open. The spit belonged to the same people who, with their feet on the necks of their African slaves, spouted that ‘all men were created equal.’
“The essential flaw in the Nativists’ program was their lack of faith in America. They doubted its long-proven ability to absorb disparate groups of people and to adequately smooth out their foreign ways so that America could adapt, grow, and get stronger with each wave of immigration.
“But by 1924 it was already too late to stop the Italians. To the absolute horror of the English-speaking ruling classes, in the thirty years from 1890 to 1920, Italy disgorged six million of its most impoverished citizens, flooding America with the largest immigration from any single country in the century. We were here and they were fucked!”
We all laughed at the vernacular. It was a good story; a fit ending. Ettore enjoyed its telling as much as we enjoyed listening to him.
Tory raised his glass in a victory toast saying “Saluti!’ with great gusto and we all joined him, exchanging expressions of appreciation and congratulations which he answered with smiling ‘thank yous.’ Paul broke the brief interlude.
“Not to change the subject, but pardon my ignorance, what did we just eat?” Paul was smiling facetiously.
I liked Paul a lot. He had first seen me on a night he was patrolling the Charles River near Boston University, a young cop on his first beat. It was 1962 and I was making out with my then girlfriend, now wife, on a bench on the Charles River. Showing astute judgment even then, he let us be.
Six years and a lot of street experience later, his beat had been moved to Boston’s North End-Waterfront areas. Number 236 Commercial Street, the border of the two areas, had been vacant for many years and when he saw new construction in progress he stopped in to apprise himself of the activity.
“Hey, I know you!” he exclaimed, when he saw me in my work clothes, sweaty, dirty and holding a hammer and a crowbar. I wiped the sweat from my brow and he reminded me of that romantic moment on the Charles some years ago and asked for a belated ‘thank you’ for his letting us be. He stayed and kept us company for a while my father and I continued to work on the demolition of the building’s interior.
Over the next few weeks Paul stopped in often. We swapped street stories, talked about people we knew and enjoyed coffee breaks together. As our relationship grew more cordial, our conversations grew more intimate: he told me police stories and I told him of my activities. We shared information that was useful to both of us. His visits became a routine that continued after the restaurant opened. He came into Dom’s frequently in the late hours to talk and have a beer. If I was busy, he visited with my father.
“What we just ate was our own gnocchi…” Paul interrupted my answer to his question.
“Gnocchi? What kind of word is that? Is that Italian for ‘children’? You eat your own children?” Paul was laughing at his own silly joke in his easy-going, self-deprecating way that made him a favorite among my friends. Even Big Al, who at first didn’t like the idea of a cop constantly hanging around me, in time, had come to respect and trust Paul.
“We make up the words to confuse the Irish, Paul. But it’s no wonder that you loved the gnocchi: they are basically boiled potatoes; right up your alley.
“Really! Potatoes? They weren’t like any potatoes I’ve ever eaten.”
“The truth. We knead boiled potatoes mixed with a bit of flour into a big loaf and let it sit. When it dries and hardens a bit, we cut a slice from the loaf and roll it into a long cord of potato-pasta. From the cords we cut small pieces and thumb-press each piece so it has a built-in well to hold sauce. It’s a bit time-consuming, but well worth the effort. You seemed to enjoy it, Paul.”
“Definitely. I loved it. I never ate anything like it. I always eat plain spaghetti and meatballs. What was the green stuff?”
“Tell him, professore.” I had caught Tory finishing a chew. He put his hand up in a ‘just a moment’ mode, swallowed, wiped his mouth and answered.
“Paolo, mio amico, that was broccoli rabe. Scientists are always telling us to eat more leafy green vegetables. Rabe are rich in the chemicals that protect us against cancer. Italos admire the slightly bitter taste.”
“Who ever heard of broccoli rabe? How do you cook it?” The lack of knowledge of our food supply that permeated American culture had been a never-ending source of surprise to Italians and Italian-Americans. But Italos, having been born and raised in America, accepted this lack as just another sign of our cultural superiority.
“Broccoli rabe is very popular with our American customers,” I added. “Like the squid we just had. We finish the steamed rabe in olive oil and garlic, salt and hot peppers. Just as the gnocchi comes out of the boiling water we toss them together with some freshly-grated Romano.”
“Oh, si, si, Domenico. Delicioso! But now, in Italian homes, we rarely make gnocchi anymore, even on special occasions. Che peccato! What a shame! Mais, Domenico, what about the wine?” I loved Tory. He had inserted Italian phrases into his speech pattern from the time we were children. He was aware of and relished its contrivance. He took great pleasure from the sound and the drama of the Italian language. Far from being an affectation, it was an integral part of his operatic culture. Also endearing to me was his insatiable thirst for knowledge, especially anything Italian.
“We have in front of us a glass of Frescobaldi, Chianti Rufina, Montesodi, 1971. Rufina is a small district within Chianti and all of the grapes were taken from this district. More specifically, ‘Montesodi’ means that the grapes came only from that particular vineyard among Frescobaldi’s holdings. I think the wine was too fine for the course but it’s great anyway.”
“Come on! Describe it!” Big Daddy insisted. “What do we laymen look for in this glass?” Like Tory, that Big Daddy was another quick study plagued with a thirst for knowledge I knew from the last eight years of personal observation.
We had opened Dom’s without any fanfare, without a sign or even outside lights. Somehow, Big Daddy had found us. One night he just walked in alone to the restaurant and took a long look around. He filled the doorway. I went over to say hello and he grabbed my hand with one of his mitts and my elbow with the other.
“Hey, you must be Dom!” His voice was forceful but pleasingly soft. “I’m Big Daddy. This is a nice restaurant. Listen, I have a party of fourteen girls outside; do you have room?”
The restaurant had a lot of room.
Big Daddy was not just a nickname: it was descriptive. He was 6’ 3” tall and very broad at the shoulders with an enviably narrow waist. He was dressed with the elegance of Italian tailoring. If my smile had the brightness of a struck match, his shone with the flash of the sun.
While he rounded up his friends, his ‘stable’ as I soon discovered, I directed the setting of a table for them in the Small Room. Big Daddy was delighted with the star treatment and, when the table arrangement was completed, invited the women to sit, directing two or three of them to specific chairs.
Obviously the women were prostitutes. But, thoroughly unlike the strippers I knew from the Combat Zone, the adult-entertainment area in downtown Boston, these girls were knockouts. All white, they were young and fresh-looking, not wrinkled and drawn; they were happy, not oppressed; they were quick to smile. If they were druggies their appearance had yet to pay the piper. Big Daddy had good taste and, apparently, could afford to be picky.
After they had settled at their table, including a round of drinks, I went over and sat with them.
“It’s nice to have you in. How did you hear about us?” I addressed Big Daddy.
“We have a mutual friend: Paul Carr. He recommended you and told me how to find the place.”
“Paul? Great! He’s a good friend. Now I’m doubly-delighted to have you in. Let me help you with your order. Would you like to eat family-style, with everyone getting the same thing? Or share appetizers and pasta and then everyone ordering their own main course? Or…”
“The second. Let’s let you decide on the appetizers and everyone will choose their own main courses.”
“Alright. That makes it very easy for me. One question on the appetizers. We’ll prepare a variety of antipasto platters for everyone but do you want a pasta course in-between the antipasto and the main course? A separate pasta course adds a bunch more food to the dinner, more time to your visit here and a bit of money, too. What’s your pleasure?”
“We are very hungry, money isn’t a consideration and our time is our own. We want a celebration. Fix a pasta course, please.” Big Daddy was bubbling with enthusiasm. He had found a home.
“Great. One last thing. You can take your time and read the menu whenever you want or I can present the menu to you in such a way that ordering will be fun and easy.”
“We want you to present it.” He was beaming. He liked everything we did. “This is a great service.”
I went through the dinner-ordering-process with each of them. Many of the girls were finicky about what went into their mouths and I carefully engineered each selection to suit the diner’s individual taste. We laughed and joked and everybody got a meal they would thoroughly enjoy. I was a star.
Later in the evening, I was able to sit and talk quietly with Big Daddy alone. Some of the girls had left; others had seated themselves at the bar to be entertained by Maxie, our magician-bartender, and a couple of others sat by themselves talking quietly.
We learned a bit about each other. Big Daddy had served a bit of time in ‘college.’ While he was daunting in his own right, in jail he had become best friends with one ‘Mau-Mau Jones,’ who enjoyed a reputation as a fearsome antagonist and the two struck up a symbiotic relationship. The two together were formidable.
Mau-Mau was attracted to the easy way Big Daddy had of being friendly with everyone and friends with no one. His own personality was diametrically opposite: he’d fight anyone for any reason and had and wanted no friends. Instead of a Big Daddy smile he had a Mau-Mau scowl which he shared with everyone he ever met. Until he met Big Daddy with his irresistible perosnality. The smile and scowl attracted each other and the two became fast friends, actually, exclusive friends, hung only with each other and were formidable. They served two years together and got out a month apart.
Big Daddy had little trouble re-establishing his business and Mau-Mau went to work for him as his right-hand man, nourishing Big Daddy’s carefully-screened client base. The pair provided the loveliest girls, quality drugs, money and a fencing operation. By the time I met Big Daddy he had established himself as a street presence around the city and made a decent living.
At this moment, Big Daddy’s prime interest was in opening a Club that would operate as a small nightclub during the evening and then morph. After hours, it would become a venue where night people, including hookers and pimps, restaurant and bar owners, management and staff and night-revelers in general could hang out: a color-blind, neutral, safe, quiet, non-judgmental place. At this moment, the idea that in just a couple of years Dom’s would also be operating its own after-hours business was inconceivable.
As big and tough as Big Daddy was, he found the application process with its paperwork and complex city bureaucracy to be daunting. He had searched me out to ask for my help in the licensing process and I agreed to help. Paul’s imprimatur was enough for me.
We lined up our political connections and met with the heads of each agency with which we would be dealing. Each assigned a sympathetic agent to handle Big Daddy’s case and each agent helped us through the maze of regulations. Slowly we wound our way through the building department, health department, licensing board, tax authorities, fire department, neighborhood meetings, and others.
To make the Club more palatable to the neighbors, and hence the Licensing Board, who might object to another bar in the South End, Big Daddy decided that serving food and calling it a restaurant would be a good idea. He had an unemployed friend who was a great cook, her specialty being a culinary combination of a Jamaican and Southern Fried Chicken dinner, complete with french fries, onion rings and burn-your-ass hot sauce. She would operate the kitchen as her own business.
The most difficult moments in this process came when trying to convince Big Daddy to fully declare the income derived from the club during its duly-licensed hours of operation. He was already scandalized by the professional and licensing fees he had to pay just to get his Club open. When he heard of what taxes he’d have to pay once he got open he was positively outraged. He had avoided partners in any of his ventures and now had to take on board as de facto partners, several of the most fearsome: the federal and state governments and a host of licensing agencies, all demanding money, money, money.
“And they call us thieves,” he kept repeating. “They call us thieves,”
When he realized that he needn’t report the cash from his after-hours operation and that he could drive a new Lincoln Town Car and have it paid by the company, plus charge a multitude of other expenses to the Company and, additionally, draw a big enough salary to keep the company from ever making a profit, he was calmed. He became playful, making a game out of categorizing almost all of his spending as business expenses, never tiring of saying, “I can deduct that!”
In due course, the Pioneer Club was duly licensed. Few city officials wanted to stand in the way of an Africo trying to get ahead since, in this era, in this city administration, many non-colored people in America were coming to see that centuries of abuse of Africos could only be overcome, in time, by thousands of small, daily individual actions, like easing Big Daddy’s way into a legitimate operation.
The Pioneer Club was a huge success, both in its evening and its early morning configurations. I was a frequent patron after-hours, enjoying its subdued, low-key atmosphere. And, despite the arrogance of the chef, I loved, loved, loved the fried chicken!
While Mau Mau never spoke directly to me nor ever actually smiled at me, aware of the help I gave Big Daddy he didn’t scowl. When I patronized the Pioneer Club, for example, he always found a table for me. Once, when no table was available, he even asked a group of white businessmen to move from their table to the bar so that my party could take their table. They glanced over to us from time to time trying to figure what we had that rated their eviction.
But back to the dinner. I had to respond to Big Daddy’s insistence on his wine education. He wanted a detail of the glass experience provided by this wonderful Chianti.
“The wine was dark red with a blackberry nose and a taste of currants; full-bodied with plenty of tannins to bring it into the next decade and a long finish with plums and minerals. Basically, its gestalt is elegant, fine and harmonious. I rate it a 91.”
“Buono!” Big Daddy raised his glass in a salute and took his last swallow of the Chianti. “Wonderful gestalt,” he joked. “What would you rate it?
While we were talking, Tracy had returned to the table with the Barolo for our next course. After pouring my taste and waiting for my approval, he poured the entire bottle out, giving all seven of us a four ounce glass.
“Why don’t we all simply enjoy this wine without an analysis,” I suggested.
“Whoa! Sounds like someone’s getting pissed.” Al was mostly joking.
“No. I’m sorry. Sometimes it’s nice to just drink without talking. But I do really love sharing.”
Frankie came into the room carrying a large platter of mushrooms of glorious shapes and colors, robed with a redolent, lovely brown-ivory sauce. Tracy followed on his heels with another. Altogether, three pairs of staff served out the mushroom course to the nineteen people in the Small Room within 15 seconds and refreshed all of the bread boards as well. Frankie stayed until everyone had tasted the mushrooms and extolled the genius of his kitchen. Then, suitable rewarded, he strutted out to serve the other rooms.
The arrival of the wine and the mushrooms at the same time presented me with a dilemma. Should I reach for the Barolo first and savor its subtleties with a clean palate? Or should I enjoy the rich, earthy opulence of the mushrooms while they were still steaming and risk losing some of the delicate tones of the Barolo by coating my palate with the residue of the mouthful and filling my nostrils with the dank aromas of the fungi? None of the others seemed to suffer from this particular curse: they just dug in and finished the food in less time than it took the staff to serve it! I opted for the Barolo my concentration sapped a bit by wistful glances at the steam wafting over my plate.
Big Daddy suddenly remembered he was missing someone.
“Hey, where’s my man Jerry?” Big Daddy asked Frankie who had just completed his tour of the dining rooms and was heading back to the kitchen. Jerry was a young, small Africo boy who worked for us.
“He’s working,” said Frankie matter-of-factly.
“Can you send him out? I’d like to say hello.”
“Sure,” Frankie said. “But don’t keep him too long,” he admonished and left to get Jerry. Peak dinner hour had arrived and Frankie had a lot on his plate.
Whenever Big Daddy came in he wanted to see Jerry and Jerry, most certainly, wanted to see Big Daddy. Jerry saved his biggest smiles for Big Daddy and tonight was no different. He strode confidently into the Small Room and walked directly over to Big Daddy, his ear-to-ear smile lighting up his face.
“Hey, my little man! How are you doing?”
“Okay. And you?” Jerry spoke softly.
“Pretty well, my man. And are you still enjoying your job here?”
Jerry put his head down and moved it in a complete circle before answering with a big, infectious smile: “Great, man. Really great!”
“Anyone bothering you at home?”
“Naw. No one notices me.”
“You remember what I told you?”
“I know. If someone bothers me I’ll call you.”
“Don’t forget. And your mama? She well?”
“She’s fine. I go to school and then come to work. She’s happy, especially when I give her the money.” Jerry always looked down when he spoke and Big Daddy didn’t cause him embarrassment by calling him on it.
“Do you do your homework?”
“Well, we really don’t have too much.”
“Alright, my little man, come shake hands.” A hundred dollar bill passed between them, as it did on every of Big Daddy’s visits. “Now go back to work. Work hard for our friend, Dom.” Jerry was beaming when he took his leave and returned to the kitchen.
Little Jerry; a tiny boy of about 13 who looked like 11, had walked into the restaurant late one freezing and windy night about a year and a half ago. I watched him struggle to get the door open. His light coat was zipped up as tightly as the zipper would allow and the collar was raised against the wind. His back was hunched in a futile effort to fold his shoulders against each other for warmth and protection.
Once inside he was protected against the cold but not against a foreign environment. He stayed tense, looking around with trepidation, wondering from which direction his latest rebuff would arrive. He had spent all evening and night walking into North End restaurants looking for a job but there were no jobs in the Italo- North End for Africos in these days and likely some of his experiences had been ruder than others.
But I was a father and here comes a little boy, in my mind’s eye, one of my own sons, struggling against the elements and the system. He could get anything he wanted from me.
He came across the half-filled dining room, asked a waiter for the manager and was directed to my table where I was doing some work. I waited as he approached as closely as he dared.
“Do you have a job?” he softly asked without introduction. I could barely hear him. He looked straight down at his shoes.
“What do you want to do?”
“Anything.” He raised his head a bit. The interview was already longer than many he'd had.
“Does your mother know you’re out this late?”
“She wants me to find a job.”
“Alright, come closer and listen carefully to me. I can’t give you a job unless I speak with your mother.”
“You can call her. She’ll tell you.” He was looking straight at me now, his confidence and hope growing. Such a small-featured, young, innocent face!
He gave me his number, I pointed to the chair opposite directing him to sit down and I dialed his mother.
“What’s your name?’
“Jerry Rusk. I live in Roxbury.”
“Jerry, are you cold?” The phone was ringing.
“Yeah. I’m cold,” he said, tucking his hands into his armpits and smiling. He was always smiling.
A woman said hello. Yes, she was Mrs. Rusk.
“Mrs. Rusk, this is Dom Capossela. I own a restaurant in the North End and your little boy is here looking for a job. I need to know if this is okay with you.”
“You have a job for my little boy? He’s an angel. I know he’s very small but he’ll do anything you tell him.”
“I can see that. How old is he?”
“Oh, he’s old enough to work. He’s 16.” Jerry wasn’t older than 12.
“Alright, Mrs. Rusk, I wanted your permission.”
“Does that mean he can work?”
“You can talk to him tonight when he gets home. But let me tell you this, Mrs. Rusk, if he comes to work here we’ll take good care of him, I promise you. Bye bye.”
“Thank you, sir. Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Dom,” she said. I hung up.
"Did you eat supper?" I was back with Jerry.
"No. I been walking," he said matter-of-factly. I thought of how I’d feel if a son of mine was out this late, in a too-thin jacket, looking for work without eating. I thought of all the cafoni who had barely looked up when Jerry asked them for jobs, dismissively waving him away; of all the food they scraped into the garbage, never giving a thought to feeding a hungry little boy.
I caught Mike’s eye and waved him over.
“Mike, get Jerry a Veal Parmesan and some Cheese Ravioli and make a plate ‘to go’ for his mother. Then fit him into the schedule for three nights, starting tomorrow. We’ll see how he does. Jerry, you go with Mike and eat something. Mike will take care of you tonight.”
Mike put his arm around Jerry’s small shoulders and walked him into the kitchen to the staff dinner table
“Take off your jacket,” he told him. Mike ordered Jerry’s food and came out to see me for further instructions.
After several minutes, I strolled into the kitchen to see how Jerry was doing. He was eating his food with great gusto but remarkably neatly, like my grandfather. When he had dinner with us, my grandfather would insist that we eat like him, clearing a wedge on our plates and then enlarging the wedge by eating only the food on its edges. The plate exposed by the sedge had to be cleaned as you went. Painful. When Jerry finished, Mike took care of him.
“Here,” Mike said, put this in your pocket so you’ll have some cash until you get your first pay.” Jerry took the four five dollar bills Mike offered and stuffed them deeply into his pocket. Jerry put on his coat and thanked me for the dinner.
Then Mike drove him and the dinner for his mother home to Roxbury. Was there ever any act more courageous than this mild-mannered, undersized, too-young, poorly-clad Africo boy walking, without protection, around a tough, entirely Italo neighborhood on a cold winter’s night looking for a way to improve his life?
Mike thought that, having a bunch of cash, Jerry wouldn’t come back to work. But he did and found a ‘first day’ present: a warm winter coat, with hat and gloves and a pair of boots. I had bought them with a bit of room for him to grow into and, in fact, he wore them through the following winter as well. I never got the honor of replacing them for a third winter.
In his tenure with us, two short years, Jerry never missed a shift, although he was often late. If he was very late I would call his mother to see if he was alright. She invariably asked:
"Mr. Dom, how's my Jerry? Does he get along? Is he in the way? Does he know how to do his work?"
I invariably answered: “Mrs. Rusk, Jerry will always have a job here. He’s already a cook’s assistant, learning to cook. As a cook, he’ll always be able to earn a decent living.” I reassured her every time we spoke. I think she asked me every time we spoke because of the joy she took in hearing of her son’s achievement.
"God bless you, Mr. Dom!"
Then one night, after two years of working for me, Jerry didn't show up. I called. No answer. I called for several days until I got the message, "This number has been disconnected at the customer’s request. No further information is available.”
Big Daddy went to his home but found that they had moved out; and no one had any information about them. I never heard from Jerry again.
My dear little Jerry, are you well? Has your soft and gentle spirit remained intact? Did you find a little girl to love and love you? Will we ever meet again? I was diminished without possibility of recoupment.
Tracy brought out seven clean wine glasses, a bottle of La Scolca “Black Label” Gavi and poured a taste. I looked at it and smelled. “Fresh and delicate,” I pronounced. I tasted it. “Flowers, lemon and green apple. Very tasty with excellent minerals.” I tasted it again. “Look for a mouth with a nice body, a good grip and a clean finish. Lovely. Rich. Enjoy it, my friends.” Again Tracy stretched the wine to all seven glasses. When he finished the pour, I raised my glass to the group and toasted Tracy. To a man they concurred with considerable gusto.
“A toast to Tracy and all the staff that is making this evening so enjoyable,” I said. Tracy grinned broadly as everyone thanked him for his help.
Tracy asked me if he should serve the bass now. “Let’s do it,” I said, getting a bit conscious of the passage of time and activities to follow.
I had spent yesterday at my house on Cape Cod. My brother-in-law, Mark, who resided at the house in the former Maid’s Quarters, had caught several striped bass off one of the jetties near our house that mark the boundaries of the private beaches attached to each home. He offered an eight-pound specimen to me for my dinner party which I had brought to the restaurant last night when my family and I returned home to the Waterfront.
Frankie stuffed it with some our own seasoned soft breadcrumbs and simply roasted it: the freshness of the wild bass provided all the flavor the dish needed. He did season the fish with a bit of dill, salt and pepper and, of course, sprinkled it with olive oil to keep it moist and added a bit of garlic to keep away the werewolves and some pieces of cored, seeded and peeled fresh tomato for color but, otherwise, he left it au naturel.
And now he wheeled out a serving cart on which lay the finished product - a lovely, large, silver, peppered, work of art, framed with roasted tomatoes and grilled asparagus. He filleted and portioned the fish, adorning each plate with the tomatoes and asparagus. A staffer set a bowl of béarnaise sauce on the table and we were ready to eat.
After a quick taste and exuberant praise for Frankie, his release words, we dug in with vigor. The fish was marvelous – firm and moist; salt-water fresh! I was half way through my plate when I spotted my son plodding through the dining room in his pajamas. I put my fork down and sat expectantly.
“Hey, sweetheart. Come on over.”
My son Dom, thirteen and confident, walked right over and, after saying hello to the group, turned to me accusingly.
“You said you were coming up.”
“I know. Sorry. Very sorry, my dear. I’ll come up right now, okay? I have that other DreamWeaver section ready. Do you want to hear it?”
“Yes. But you told me that already. Is the band here yet?” He looked around, hoping to get lucky and to catch me off guard.
“No sweetheart. You’ll be fast asleep by the time they arrive but you’ll see them tomorrow. Come on. I’m ready to break from here.”
“You didn’t finish your plate!”
“That’s alright, my dear. They’ll save it for me.” As I rose from my table, I took a last fork of fish and, looking wistfully at the remainder, apologetically took yet another leave of my guests.
I excused myself for half an hour. Nothing to be done: family calling.
But Frankie needed my attention and was not to be denied. He strode over to us as we were wending our way through the tables. When he caught up, my son Dom waited patiently: he had a lot of experience waiting.
“What’s up my friend?” I asked
“Nothing. Everything’s going good but I have one question. Who’s going to tell us when to fire the courses for tonight’s group?”
“Okay. Ciro told me he's going home before the party. He seemed a little pissed."
"He wants to be part of the party. I told him it's simply too late for him. He won't be functional tomorrow. My sisters will be in soon and they'll organize for the party. Ciro's not the type for these kids. ‘E troppo elegante!’ "
"Well, he’s a Northerner. What do you expect?” For Frankie, everything always came down to class warfare.
Dom and I started out again but now Big Al approached in his secretive, quiet way, closing the distance between us so he could speak very softly.
“Don’t forget we have this guy coming to do some business. Remember the Chief?"
"I remember. I'll be back; it’s going to be a very long night," I said. Al was reassured.
Dom wanted to know who The Chief was.
“I’ll tell you tomorrow. It’s a very long story.” I was lucky to get away with that. I wanted a bit of time to frame an appropriate, truthful response.
Climbing slowly with my son up the one flight of stairs to our apartment, I smiled, relishing this brief, quiet moment away from the hubbub in the restaurant below. I live a good life but, like everyone else, I occasionally suffer from overload. This moment with my family, away from the restaurant, was a welcome respite from the long night ahead. Eight-thirty now, I had about nine hours to go; a very long night, indeed.
Toni Lee was solicitous, as always.
“Is everything okay?” she asked and grabbed my shoulders.
We hugged and kissed.
The other two boys came around.
“Everything’s fine. I promised I would put the boys to bed.”
“Have they come yet?” eleven-year-old Mino asked.
“Can’t we go down just to say hello?” Dom didn’t give up easily.
“Can I come tomorrow?” Chris asked.
“Not yet; no and yes!” They knew the answers but were checking the rigidity of my barriers. But the barriers held and we walked into my son Dom’s room where we always gathered for bedtime stories.
How nice that they were entirely ready for bed: washed, peed, brushed and in clean pj’s!
I got on the bed and claimed the headboard to support my back. The boys maneuvered for comfortable spots to rest and listen. Christopher, the youngest, still didn’t understand the necessity of being gentle to the crotch and sat on my lap with such emphasis that only a quick turn to my side saved my tenders from being slammed. The other two settled on either side of me with my arms around them.
Goodbye to freshly-pressed pants.