Sebben, crudele.

19 Mar

One autumn in my youth, I needed a job and badly. I had squandered my summer doing awful summer stock on a postage-stamp stage and ended up with nothing to pay towards my half of a private high school education. So, I studied during the hour-and-a-half bus ride to and from school each day, then washed dishes, at night, in a restaurant run by a family that collectively had the brain of a large gnat or a very small chicken.

Locals, their previous family business endeavor I believe involved something in the roofing realm. Given the level of dysfunction to which I was privy five nights a week, I’m shocked there weren’t whole blocks and long avenues of exposed living rooms and lovers all over my neighborhood. These people couldn’t pick a single shingle, let alone plan a menu.

The father was kind, but kind of whipped and distant, his eyes glazed over with “how-the-hell-did-I-end-up-running-a-restaurant” cataracts. The sons, and there’s always two in a dictatorship, were Officious and Useless, walking around with empty threatening clipboards all the time and using their lofty position to bang waitresses if the customers didn’t pan out. And then the mother. This mother was a hydra, a harridan, a harpy. So evil was she, were there sufficient materials on Earth, I’d have fashioned a voodoo doll of her and tossed it in a frying pan. Overweight and overbearing, she never shut the fuck up in a voice that could scrape polyps out of your colon. She rode those poor dingbat waitresses’ asses harder than her sons in the locked office and should one of them break a damn dish, she deducted it from their paltry paycheck. There were no tips to speak of. There were ten tables a night on a good one.

The chef was an Italian maniac midget of a man who had some type of laryngeal horror going on through the haze of the three cigarettes he had blazing at any one given time, ashes falling into entrees, making it impossible to understand him so he would hurl knives and pans at the incompetent staff who were bewildered by his incomprehensible rants. Think Jack Klugman if he were Sicilian. His signature dish was a crock of lasagna and he’d prepare them months in advance, freezing them in bulk in the summer like an ambitious squirrel and thawing them out once the winter clouds glowered. They were constantly sent back to the kitchen from customers who complained of frostbitten tongues. We’d all just stare as he’d stick his tarnished, nicotine-stained, fat little sausage finger straight through the dish to the bottom and scream, “She’s-a warm enough-achhhucurraphuch! Take it back echhrrech!” and off it would go untreated and out into the dining room again. I, slipping in my own little corner of putrid foul-smelling funk myself, was revolted.

Somehow he took a shining to me though, I think because it was usually just him and me in the kitchen and I never ratted him out about how much liquor he was guzzling on the job. More likely, it was because whenever he ordered me into the walk-in for some unintelligible request I just ran right in and stood there in the freezer watching my breath and scanning the shelves until my eyes fell on a box of fiddle-head ferns and it dawned on me that was what he so desperately needed but couldn’t communicate.

“You-a chhhhhrumph good-a boy.”

They hired a pianist late that October, another diva of a booze-hound never-was with delusions of grandeur. He had taken to telling tawdry, tasteless jokes as part of his spiel, and it seemed he was specifically employed to scare the customer away. He was, sadly, very talented, but forever drunk, and spoke in a flurry of dialects that I could never quite pinpoint. So I made up his story in my mind as I scraped burnt mozzarella and cigarette butts off of the chef’s station: He was schooled on a small ship, just him and his piano, that sailed up and down the Danube and into the Baltic, never resting in any one port long enough for him to settle on an accent. He was Scandislavian.

He played well at the start of the shift, though, and I would sneak out of the kitchen to hear his arpeggios; he introduced me to Listz. It actually made the horrible nasty nights a little happier. I would alarm myself when I discovered I’d be humming in the midst of what I thought had been my misery.

I was studying opera at the time, and singing one-word roles with a small opera company in New Jersey. One night, as I was collecting dishes in the dining room in my filthy greasy t-shirt and apron, he started playing Caro mio ben. I knew the words and started singing along. He heard me, swung around in his swiveled piano bench so fast the roof buckled, and clasped his hands together in the kind of joyful gesture one makes at having just discovered gin. I made a bee-line for the kitchen where I knew the chef would be coughing up phlegmatic orders for me, but was intercepted by Mother playing defense who could do anything she wanted with me and her other indentured minor-leaguers. I was made to stand there and sing Caro mio ben in front of a handful of confused but polite diners. The smattering of applause was not enough for the pianist’s protégé, so out of his mouth flew a few invectives in any number of languages until he was satisfied with the response. And off I went with a slimy tub of half eaten frozen food. I entered the kitchen to stare down a butcher’s knife and assaulted by something that sounded like, “You-a hrchhrumphh good-a boy achhleppp, but you no sing-a no more, you echhhhph-hechech wash-a my pans.”

But the Mother, that scrimy stingy shrike at the helm, she had other plans for my unpaid talents.

From that night on, every weeknight in the Winter of 1980-81, you could exchange your frozen food for theirs at a shitty restaurant on the Jersey Shore, courtesy of the Roofwrights, eat ashes even, and watch a plastered Victor Borge-belt accompany the grimy bony little dishwasher in an aria by Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, or even a little Leoncavallo.


9 Responses to “Sebben, crudele.”

  1. Dugutigui March 21, 2012 at 11:35 pm #

    This is fantastic … I’ve been splitting of laughter from the first sentence … apart from the undoubted beauty of your writing, your sense of humor is superhuman …
    On the downside, I’m thinking of closing my blog 🙂 impossible to compete with your art… by far the best I have ever read on the Internet! And I read a lot…

    • NC Coot March 22, 2012 at 10:07 pm #

      You’re really kind, D.

      Close your blog and I’ll toss myself off a building. I only do this to connect to good writing like yours.

      • Dugutigui March 23, 2012 at 12:04 am #

        Hope you are living in the ground floor…
        OK, seriously, I’ll continue trying…

  2. wheresmytbackandotherstories March 24, 2012 at 10:42 pm #


    Your biting humor is so hilarious. I imagine each sequence of events like scenes in a movie. The chef must have taken a liking to you or else it would have rained invectives and cuss words which, though unintelligible and no matter how dirty, would still sound wickedly euphonious in Italian.

    • NC Coot March 24, 2012 at 10:45 pm #

      My first thought every day continues to be to wipe his spittle from my face.

      Thank you for such kind good words.

      • wheresmytbackandotherstories March 24, 2012 at 10:56 pm #

        Che peccato! But then to be surrounded with music from the maestros, you’re one lucky man!

      • NC Coot March 24, 2012 at 10:59 pm #

        One never realizes one’s fortune in the moment, in youth.

      • wheresmytbackandotherstories March 24, 2012 at 11:04 pm #

        That’s why we can always ‘retrospect’.

        I was just reading your ‘About this blog’ when your comment notification popped up.

      • NC Coot March 24, 2012 at 11:17 pm #

        Retrospect. Indeed!

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