by Bill Bowler
|Chapter 7: Paulie and Carlos|
Young Walter Wobble quits school to go out into the world and find the People. With no money or prospects, he works as a busboy while writing poetry and dreaming of success. Through his tenement window, he watches from afar a young woman who lives across the street until, one day, they meet. Unfortunately there is already another man in Cynthia’s life, a man Wobble knows: he is Josef Mrak, and he has some very bad karma.
The next night I was at work at the restaurant, prepping for the dinner rush. The dinner scene and crowd were different from lunch. The basic groups of evening clientele were local rich people from Gramercy Park, city and state politicians, Italian actors from the method acting studio around the corner, Italian mobsters, and Italian businessmen, Paulie’s friends.
The funny thing was that they all knew each other. Paulie; Al Pasquale, the movie star; Vinnie the Horse; the Gramercy waste hauler; the guy who bought the bookstore chain — they had all grown up together and were from the same neighborhood around Carmine Street in the Village.
Paulie would sit at the tables and schmooze with his businessman pals. One guy was part of a syndicate that had bought the well-known bookstore franchise “Burns & Nibbles.” At the time they bought it, it was on the verge of bankruptcy and, essentially, all they bought was the name. But the name was gold. The new owners were in the process of turning it around and looked to make some major amounts of moolah in the process.
Another of Paulie’s pals, a young nervous guy, had taken the reins of his father’s local Gramercy Park private waste-hauling business. This was an extremely lucrative cow to milk but the mobsters could recognize a good thing when they saw it, too.
Vinnie the Horse, Tito the Sailor and other gangsters would come in and work the room. They could smell the money in “Burns & Nibbles,” in the waste-hauling operation, and in Paulie’s Ristorante itself. The mobsters would invite themselves to sit and join the party, exchange pleasantries, and steer the conversation to how the enterprise in question would benefit from their increased involvement.
Paulie and his pals had different reactions to the pressure. The “Burns & Nibbles” guy took it all in stride and seemed able to sidestep the issue. The Gramercy waste-hauler looked in trouble. When the Sailor sailed over and docked at his table, the waste hauler went pale and started shaking and hemming and hawing. It didn’t look like he was going to be in charge of waste hauling all that much longer.
The gangsters, Paulie’s old pals from the neighborhood, put pressure on Paulie, too. You need fish, Paulie? Let us supply your fish. You need meat, right? Let us supply your meat. But Paulie wasn’t about to buy spoiled meat and rotten fish and let these bozos muscle in and ruin everything. He bought only the finest quality. Good food was everything at Paulie’s. It was the foundation of his whole reputation. The quality of the cuisine served in Paulie’s was his sacred goal.
Rinaldo, from Italy, who could hardly speak English, was downstairs early every morning with a heavy, razor sharp cleaver butchering a whole carcass. And nothing went to waste; they used everything: the steaks, the ribs, the liver, the osso bucco, the rognoni...
Still, Paulie couldn’t cut the mob out entirely. He was operating in their territory. So, he gave them paper goods. He let the gangsters supply his paper towels and toilet paper. It was brilliant! The Wise Guys got their piece of the action, but were held at bay while the threat to the cuisine had been forestalled.
And Paulie never flinched, never fell apart like his pal, the waste hauler. Paulie had balls; he had nerves of steel. He dealt with these extremely dangerous and violent people in what amounted to a fair and straightforward way, meeting them halfway and never showing even a glimmer of fear. And they kept coming, not only to work the room, but to eat. The food at Paulie’s, after all, was absolutely delicious.
* * *
It was half past five, the calm before the storm. I was carrying clean linen through the kitchen to the dining room. Carlos the waiter was cutting strawberries. I don’t know how they do it, but these cabrones can tell when you’re not getting laid, maybe by the way you blush and look embarrassed when they start talking about pinga and pussy.
Carlos, cutting strawberries, pointed the knife at me and laughed loudly. “Why, he no have it in so long, he don’ know what pussy is!”
“Ha ha ha!” from the Mexicanos and Jamaicans.
“When was the last time you ate pussy, maricón?”
“None of your business.” I was blushing pretty seriously at this point.
“Hey, man! Where’s you seester? I like to screw you seester!”
“Ha ha ha!”
As I put my shoulder to the double doors, carrying the tablecloths into the dining room, Carlos’ right hand shot out like a whip, like a king cobra striking a mongoose, and he goosed me.
“Jesus Christ! Keep your hands off my pinga!” I screamed. It’s unbelievable. I don’t care if these Spanish guys are goosing each other left and right but now they’re doing it to me! How about a little respect and common decency? A little decorum? A little human dignity? They’ve developed goosing to a high art. It’s like their kung-fu.
Still fuming, I pushed through the double doors, put away the tablecloths in the side stand, and poured myself a cup of coffee. I watched a little mouse scurry along the baseboard and disappear into the kitchen. They were the bane of Paulie’s existence. He trapped them and poisoned them by the dozens, and kept the restaurant spanking clean, but there was just too much food there and too much activity to make it mouse-proof. The little Mickies and Minnies kept coming back for more. At least they stayed out of sight when the lights were on and the place was full of people.
By eight o’clock, the place was in full swing. In the midst of the barely controlled mayhem, the front door swung open and Tito the Sailor came in with his accountant. Paulie was on him instantly, escorted him to the little deuce in front next to the coat check where The Sailor liked to sit.
Paulie personally took The Sailor’s order. I had thought that The Horse, who always made an entrance accompanied by his large entourage, was the big shot. The Sailor always came in quietly with just one other person, and kept a low profile, and I figured he was no big deal. But watching how careful and solicitous Paulie was with him, how much personal care he put into The Sailor’s order and service, it became apparent that the real power was not The Horse at all, but The Sailor, who avoided the glare and stayed low in the background.
The Sailor had close-cropped gray hair and strong, sinewy hands. He exuded an aura of cold-bloodedness. He liked his linguine broken into three equal pieces and ate only the toasted ends of whole-wheat Italian loaves, no butter. The bread could not be placed on the table first when he sat down, but had to be timed to arrive warm when the pasta was being served. Paulie closely supervised the process from start to finish.
It was best to avoid eye contact with The Sailor at all costs. He looked like, if you crossed him, he would break you in pieces, like the linguini, but would derive no particular pleasure from it. He would just do it methodically. The Sailor seemed to have no emotions at all, just generalized, barely repressed homicidal urges. His eyes were steel grey, clear, ice cold, and constantly roving around the room. Nothing escaped his gaze, as he sat quietly and unobtrusively, in stark contrast to The Horse’s ostentatious and noisy entourage.
Carlos the waiter’s problems began that night when The Sailor came in.
Carlos approached the table.
The Sailor said loudly, “I don’ wan’ no spics waitin’ on me. Paulie! C’mere, take my order, will you? I don’ wan’ no spics carrying my food.”
Paulie came over at once. “Sure, Tito, no problem. Carlos, cover 41.”
Paulie handled The Sailor, but Paulie’s mood had darkened. Carlos was not at fault, but he was now the indistinct object of Paulie’s ill humor.
It was with some trepidation that I noticed the busboy O’Hara — who during the past hour had consumed the equivalent of two bottles of wine, gulp by gulp, by selectively bussing only tables with half-empty wine glasses — stumbling in the direction of the The Sailor’s table.
O’Hara stood there swaying unsteadily, and with slurred speech and wine on his breath, said, “You wanna see a menu?”
“Get the hell outa here before I rearrange your face.”
Paulie swooped down like a hawk, took O’Hara by the shoulders, turned him and escorted him away, saying, “Sorry, Tito, sorry. He’s not Italian.”
* * *
Paulie sat later to eat his own dinner at 21. As he tucked his napkin into his shirt collar, he called Carlos over.
“Carlos, what’s the problem?”
“It’s a language problem. A language problem!”
“You have to be a busman again. You have to learn English. Go to school for a couple of months and we’ll give it another shot.”
Carlos’ face dropped. After a year and a half of bussing, then the better money and status as a waiter, how could he go back to being a busboy?
Paulie continued. “It’s a language problem. We had a complaint from 35 last night.”
“Oh, yes. De man wan’ed plain meat.”
“That’s right. Plain meat! So why did you suggest veal picante? Lemon and butter sauce! What does ‘plain’ mean? That’s the problem. You don’t understand English.”
Carlos shrugged. “I bring him de veal picante.”
Paulie threw up his hands. “I know. And it was wrong. Wrong! Plain is plain. And there have been other complaints, too. You’re a wash-out. I gave you the chance, I made you a waiter, but there’s a language problem. We never, NEVER have a complaint from Miguel’s section. Miguel made it. Are you going to make it? You have to learn English. I’m giving you one more shot. But if you don’t understand something, get me, get the manager, get another waiter, get a busboy, get ANYBODY! But don’t just go on and order the wrong food. Once it’s cooked, it’s too late. You understand?”
Carlos nodded. Paulie waved him away. “All right. One more chance.”
* * *
Around nine-thirty, Carlos told me to bring bread and ice water to 17, a two-top in the front window. As I walked up, I was kind of shocked to see Professor Mrak and Cynthia holding hands across the table. She looked up at me, showing mild surprise, and withdrew her hand discretely from his. I lingered to eavesdrop.
He was saying, “... In my youth, I wrote passionate love poetry to my first wife, who at that time was my fiancé. I believed then in the power of the heart and the beauty of emotion. It was only after years of bitter experience and struggle that I abandoned poetry as a foolish and useless pastime, and took up the gauntlet of philosophy in an attempt to change the world and not merely moan in verse about my own insignificant infatuations.”
“You wrote poetry, Josef?”
“When I was young and ignorant, yes, I’m ashamed to admit.”
“But that’s wonderful!”
“A waste of time.”
As Carlos came up to take their order, Mrak looked up at me and put his hand on the napkin that covered the breadbasket I was holding. A shadow of something flickered across his face.
“Could you heat the bread?”
Yeah, sure. I re-heated the bread and brought it back. Then, without looking up, he says, “More butter.”
More butter. Period. Just like that. As if to no one in particular but addressed, of course, to the busboy, me. Not, “excuse me,” or “may I please,” just “more butter.” Of course, I got it for him but it was really bugging me to have this creep bossing me around. People with class treat their servants with respect. This guy was obviously a slob.
I took a closer look at him. Gray hair and goatee. Wrinkled face. Pencil-thin moustache, razor trimmed. Looked like some heavy and not entirely successful repression of something was going on here. He was sliding raw oysters off the shells into his mouth, spilling sauce all over the tablecloth.
I started to refill their water and knocked over the glass into his lap. He jumped up.
“You stupid idiot!”
“Oh, it’s you. What are you doing here?”
“I work here.”
“So I see. Well, try to be more careful.”
“Yes, sir, I will.”
Carlos rushed up with a clean napkin and dabbed the water stain on Mrak’s trouser leg.
“Never mind!” said Mrak, brushing him back.
“Is just water, sir,” said Carlos. “No stain. You like a cocktail or a nice bottle of wine with dinner?”
“Vodkamartiniupwithatwist,” said the Professor.
“Escuse me, sir?”
At the bar, Carlos ordered a vodka martini up but garnished it with an olive. When he put the drink down on the table, Mrak glared.
“Twist,” said Mrak. “I said TWIST!”
Carlos bowed his head. “Yes, sir.”
“What’s the problem here?” Paulie came over, having heard the customer’s loud complaint.
“This waiter doesn’t understand English,” complained Mrak. “He doesn’t understand the difference between a twist and an olive.”
“What’s the problem here, Carlos?”
“Is nothin’, Paulie, nothin’. I make a mistake. I no feel good tonight.”
Mrak went on, “I come into a nice restaurant, the prices are not low. I demand competent service. I have a right to expect it.”
Paulie called old Tony over to wait on Mrak. Then Paulie took Carlos up to his office. That was the last time I saw Carlos at Paulie’s. I did see him one time after that, not at Paulie’s, and under the most shocking circumstances, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.
At the end of the meal, I went up to clear Mrak and Cynthia’s table. “How was everything tonight? You like a little espresso, now? Cappuccino?”
The answer was yes. When I came with the coffees, Mrak put his hand on Cynthia’s thigh.
“Don’t touch me,” she said coldly.
Mrak grinned impishly at me, shrugged, and kept his hand on her thigh, squeezing it.
“Don’t touch me,” she repeated.
Cynthia took off a gold bracelet. “Here! You can have it back. What do I care?”
She was fuming. Mrak still had his “ha ha I can’t believe it either” look on his face.
Cynthia rose. “I’m leaving.”
Mrak watched her walk out the door, then quickly put two hundreds on the table and raced out after her.
I watched them from the front window. They were arguing in the street. Cynthia stomped her foot and shouted something at him. His face went crimson and he slapped her. I dropped the dirty dishes on the table and ran out the front door and down the steps, but when I reached them, she was crying in his embrace and he was comforting and consoling her. Paulie yelled down to me from the front door.
“Get back in here, Wobble! Fifty-five needs coffee! C’mon, let’s go!”
I ran back up the steps and into the restaurant and grabbed the coffee pot. God! What was the big deal? They couldn’t wait thirty seconds for a refill? It was ten o’clock. Two more hours to the end of my shift.
By eleven, things had slowed down considerably. There were a few late arrivals, but mostly people finishing up dessert and coffee. I was standing by the espresso machine, keeping an eye on my tables, thinking about Mrak and Cynthia. First, what did she see in him? Was it some kind of father thing? I was much closer to her age and interests. Maybe it was his money? College professors don’t make that much, but he had a bankroll of hundreds. Must have something going on the side. I recalled the blond man and the list of names in the bar a few nights ago.
Copyright © 2009 by Bill Bowler