Today’s wine has me thinking of the kind of baked cherry pie you can find in many diners and humble restaurants across the land. The kind of place where lives, lust and philosophy intersect as people scratch out a living.
Lar de Robla Vinos de Arganza Premium Castilla y Leon 2008 ($9). 100% Mencia and 100% delicious. Opening with baked pie notes this medium bodied Spanish wine had satisfying tart cherry flavors. Yet not so tart as to be unbalanced. Finishing with soft acidity and tannins, this is to be savored now, but you might tuck away one or two for the future. Rated **1/2
Women may forgive, but they do not forget. Women of that generation surrendered themselves to their men, opened their legs, bore children and sealed their fates. Surrender and capture at the same time. But some men are not meant for the captivity of domesticity. They are of two minds– they desire the normalcy, if you want to call it that of a home life– wife, kids, making donuts from 9-to-5, weekends in the park flying kites, dinner on the table, Johnny Carson fading to a silent deathly marital slumber. But they have the craving for that life outside of home. And in N’s case, with as many other women as would have him. To him, each of these women were the same– surrendering themselves to him, opening their legs, and sealing their fates. Is she playing him? Or is he playing her? It is a dangerous game. And no one is in control though everyone thinks he or she is.
Finding himself in one of the darker parts of the State of New Jersey, with his restaurant expertise, and because he was “family”, he convinced his brother-in-law to help him purchase a local eatery in a neighboring town. It was a greasy spoon of an establishment in the heart of southern New Jersey. For a short while, I worked there as a 16-year-old dishwasher.
The town was at that time home to hillbillies, whores, racists and those who coveted thy neighbor’s wives. (Of course, there were normal folks there as well, but they were pretty boring.) He fell right in with the rhythm of the place. However, being a Big City Boy of Puerto Rican descent, his perception was that he would not be considered desirable by the Welcoming Committee of the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan. His concern may not have been so far-fetched: the town was lily-white at that time and it was rumored that the local KKK branch was led by a suspicious and crusty old coot who was a sometime customer of the restaurant. N’s solution to the problem was to claim Greek heritage. So he was a Big City Greek. Somehow, he thought this was better. Most of the locals had never met a Greek before and he could pass for a reasonable facsimile if one did not know better. But most of them also knew the sound of spoken Spanish even if they had never heard Greek before. Still the ploy must have worked because we never found any burning crosses in front of the restaurant. Or perhaps this was just all a product of N’s paranoia. (As Curt Cobain once wrote: “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you.”)
He was in his element—with an urbane manner and the exoticism of being thought of as a son of the Peloponnesus, the horny middle-aged local gals beat a path to his door. Not having learned his lesson from the Italian Job, he reeled them in and had his way with them in a myriad of places including the restaurant kitchen after closing time: flesh slapping panting grunting rendezvous amongst the detritus of restaurant life: piles of plates, cutlery, wet dish rags, saucers, fry pans, spatulas and strainers, tomato sauce cans, pepper, oregano, garlic, dried basil, paprika, pickles, salt and leftover spaghetti.
Meanwhile, his wife waited for him in the apartment above the restaurant.
He always made a point of justifying his behavior to me by explaining that once a man aged to the point in life where an erection was physically impossible to obtain, all he had was his memories. So his mission was to build a pornographic library of memories that he could run like a highlight reel toward the end of his life. His wife was not permitted the same privileges. I wonder if she ever took on a lover of her own? If she did , then she did it in a way that he never found out. Soft-spoken and shy because she was not confident in her ability to speak English, she was nonetheless striking. Raven-haired, with piercing dark eyes, she was tall, slim, you would never hear her walk into a room, she just seemed to appear, as a ghost appears.
During business hours, the restaurant was populated by an oddball collection of customers who were served by a tiny cadre of waitresses culled from the local workforce. The front of the house had a total of 16 booths and a juke box by the window to the left of the entrance. Though small, the place was never filled. One waitress could handle it easily on most evenings.
There were 2, maybe 3 waitresses employed at any one time. These were women with stories to tell and secrets to hide. All of them were just decent people just trying to make it, living paycheck to paycheck, carrying the burdens of working class poverty and dreams of a better tomorrow for themselves and their families. Sometimes, they were trying just to earn enough to buy their next round of drinks at the local road house, a place where they could sit back, Venus fly traps with legs spread open waiting for their next meal ticket to alight on their fragrant petals. The smells of the restaurant kitchen, a combination of sweat and cooking grease stuck to their clothes and their salty skin at the end of each day. Some went home and burnished their skin, till it glowed as white as porcelain and carried the scent of Ivory Soap. Some covered their musky odor with strong perfume. Either way, theirs was a smell redolent of struggle and survival.
And since the pay was meager and the tips inadequate—the place was a revolving door for a stream of waitresses.
Buck-toothed Carol for one—we did not really call her that, but her upper mandible stuck out so as to give her a rather horsey appearance—so it seems fitting today. Due to this unique physical feature, some words, like “perspiration” were often too difficult for her to pronounce: “sperspiration, I mean sweat!” she would say. After the dinner “rush”, she would feed the juke box. Her favorite was the Eagles, Lyin’ Eyes with its western twang:
In her late thirties or perhaps early forties and married to a greasy-haired flaccid hillbilly of a husband with two equally greasy gelatinous children, she befriended Bearded Norman, a regular customer whose greatest attributes were a prodigiously full and dark Agamemnon-like beard and the fact that his chariot was an equally dark pickup truck that he would park in front of the restaurant where he would take many of his dinners on nights when Carol was working. Combine these fine qualities with a middle-aged paunch, and you could see that Bearded Norman was quite the catch– if you were Buck-toothed Carol. I realized that their relationship had progressed beyond professional when I spied them chatting intimately in the cab of the pickup as I was leaving work one evening. After Buck-toothed Carol quit, I never saw Bearded Norman again. I guess he wasn’t there for the fine cuisine.
There was Faye, a younger woman than Carol, then in her late twenties, perhaps, early thirties, curvaceous, pretty face, but most remarkable for the fact that at such a young age, she wore dentures after having lost all of her front teeth. Whether this loss was caused by disease or fist, I do not know. Leaving little to the imagination, she did let on as indiscreetly as possible that many of her paramours were entranced by this attribute. Not being the shy type, she once popped out her dentures to show us her naked gums.
These were people serving food, right? So yummy.
After Carol and Faye, there were two other waitresses there that made an impression on me. First there was a Nordic beauty, whose name is now lost to me. She was married to fellow named Hans. They lived in a mobile trailer home, but she was comfortable with what she had and I sensed that she had no shame about living in such impoverished circumstances. She was one of the most centered people I have ever met. In some respects, she was angelic. But she had lived enough to see the other, darker side of human nature.
Then, there was my secret crush, Terry. She was in her early 20’s, a trim brown-eyed mass of mischief, freckles and brown hair. Her boyfriend, Bad-Boy-George, was what my father would disparagingly have referred to as a hippie: stringy long-haired, moustached, and drugged-up. The kind of guy Dad wanted me to avoid. She was too good for him, but she seemed happy. Visiting the restaurant during one of my college breaks my Freshman year, I sat in a booth with the Scandinavian goddess, to catch up on the stuff going on in my new collegiate life. Terry was finishing the afternoon shift, and plopped herself down in the booth directly across from me—just a big how-do-you-do smile beaming across her face. We leaned across the table to give a friendly greeting kiss. As we met, I was surprised by the warm and wet kiss that was waiting for me. We lingered there for a moment. Then we sat down– each of us a little embarrassed. Not knowing whether she was serious or just playing around for fun, I did not say a word. A quick query, “Did I just see some tongue there?”, asked Ms. Scandinavia. I blushed. Neither of us was going to answer that question. It just sort of happened. Apparently, my crush was not so secret.
Later that evening, accepting an invitation from Terry, I ended up at the house that she shared with George. I knew that George and one of his buddies would also be also there, but I figured, why not go and check out the scene. Also, I was secretly hoping that maybe he would not be there. Naturally, he was right on time and waiting for her arrival.
Despite the fact that he was a ne’er-do-well, he wasn’t such a bad guy, really. But she was still too good for him.
Taking leave that night, I got in my car, turned the engine over and pulled out the driveway, each stone in the gravel driveway heaving under the crush of the rubber tires. It had started to rain and waving good-bye, her smile faded, through tear-like droplets of water, as I spied her through the rear view mirror. She turned her back and walked back into her life. Driving home that night, I thought I would see her on my return trips back home. But I never made the time to do that. That was 1978. Some years later, I asked N about her. Terry had succumbed to cancer before reaching the age of 40.
I like to think that Terry thought of me over the years. Maybe she did. Maybe not. I know she pops into my mind now and again. When she does, I remember that last day we spent together and my lonesome drive home in a light rain that night.
The years pass us by in an instant. N is a broken man now– on dialysis, diabetic, and hollowed out. When it comes to me, he can’t hide behind the now cracked veneer– elderly and ailing. The wood beneath that veneer was never of the highest quality. I know him from the inside out. I suspect that, as he predicted, he is replaying that highlight reel in his head even as his broken body is failing him.
Despite his lack of qualifications as a role model, N was right in one respect: as you take the last few laps of life, ONE of the things we are left with is memories. The others, if you play your cards well, are love and respect. I am not sure how much he has of these last two. These are the good things in life that one should always linger over…
Those Things and Memories of Accidental kisses.