It’s not just the language itself that makes me smile whenever I hear it, it’s the way the Italians express their language that gets me. It’s both song and dance! For two guys discussing a restaurant in common (whether they liked it or not) will do it with no less vigor and passion, waving gesticulation, than the great Arturo Toscanini conducting Otello. Here’s what I mean…
Just last week I had a guy come in (he’s Italian so let’s call him Patsy) who manages a high-end restaurant a few blocks away. With his million dollar smile and handsome mug and his personality to boot which exceeds those assets, he’s the embodiment of what can be cool about “Italian”. Born it seems to do what he does which is make other people feel good, he simply lights up a room when he makes an entrance. As he did that night. Shaking hands and cheek-kissing women and beaming as he made his way to a spot at the bar, you’d have thought the man was running for a public office. But he wasn’t… it’s real and that’s just Patsy, Mr. Personality! And when you compare his presence to what I had earlier… five of my Irish brethren dirging in the corner… the ball had just fucking dropped in Times Square.
So after the hoopla had finally abated, meaning after Patsy’s entrance, this first time couple sitting at the bar asked if I happened to know a late night dinner place. It was well after eleven.
“Hey, Patsy,” I hollered across the room (he’d left his spot at the bar), “when you get a second come here, I need to ask you something.”
“Whaddaya’ need?” he said, as he walked back over. Smiling of course.
“This very nice couple here… by the way, say hello to Mario and Kelly… were looking for a place to go for a late night bite. You’re better at this than I am, got any suggestions?”
Patsy’s smile quickly widened and here’s why… he’d heard the name Mario. Yep, before he even got to the restaurant part, which was far less the point at this point, he launched into one of those things that Italians do. He threw out a couple of words in their language to see if this Mario spoke it, and when he found that he did the two of them turned into brothers. Well, almost. For back and forth they sang their language waving their hands as they did so, sharing their towns of origin and God knows what else. It was English then suddenly Italian, then back again into English, where a restaurant eventually did get suggested (and thank God for Kelly’s sake), but not before a whole lot more got established. It was a thing of beauty!
But when it was over, I remembered another such moment that wasn’t so pleasant. Here, let me share it with you.
About a week after moving to New York City, as a much younger man I should add, I got a job in a restaurant called P.J. Clarke’s. New York was still a movie to me… a scene-a-minute to observe… and working in the famous P.J. Clarke’s with all its sundry characters (both staff and clientele) was like actually stepping into that movie with a part. The part of a waiter. But never having been in this business before I was not only green in the city, I was emerald green as far as this thing called “waiter” goes. But hey, we’re not talking neuroscience here… just putting down booze and food… and even I could master this most crafty craft.
So about a month into my brand new gig this group comes into the bar, at least nine strong and Italian, and the maitre’d set them down in my station. He put two tables together to form a long rectangle. But before I could even approach these guys to ask if they’d like a drink, a waiter named Joey came over and pulled me aside.
“Do you know who they are?” he asked, with a shitload of seriousness.
“No,” I said, “why, should I?”
He ignored my query. “Listen, make sure you take good care of those guys, they’re the boys.”
“Huh, what boys?” I said. (I told you I was green!)
“They’re connected, man, do I have to fucking spell it out for you?”
“Oh,” I said, with a naive glee, realizing now my movie is all about gangsters. “You mean like the mafia?”
“Shush, you stupid fuck!” he hissed through a whisper. “What’re ya’ nuts?”
“Whoa, sorry, man,” I said, “mum’s the word. Got it!” And boy did I get it. For now I’m not just in any movie, I’m in a Scorsese movie for crying out loud! How cool is that? “Relax, Joey, I’ll be cool,” I added to assure him.
So after I finally got to the table, took their drink order and served it (soft drinks as I recall and maybe some vino), I left them alone before I got to the food part. Yet I still couldn’t believe it. I’m three fucking feet away from an actual sitdown! I thought. And I was just three feet away which is why the trouble started.
For instead of me walking away like you do after setting down customer’s drinks, so in love with the moment was I… so fucking dumb and naive… that I leaned my elbow on the nearby bar and parked my ass like a yenta who can’t leave a beauty salon. I mean this was the real deal here, I did have a part in this movie, so why not stick around and take in the dialogue? Even though some of its lines were in Italian. But what got me the most as I took all this in was not just the Italian they spoke, but when and where they inserted their native tongue. Because they basically talked in English but then right in the middle of a sentence they would suddenly switch. And that fascinated me. Why in the fuck did he switch just now, did he just go into a thing about some kinda’ heist?” Man is this cool?
Boy was that dumb.
Because whether it was my goofy smile that did it or maybe my Irish puss that said to them “cop”, the mood had suddenly changed and all for the worse. Not only did “the boys” now stay in Italian while having their serious chat, but in that language they now were discussing me. Yeah, one of the younger guys put up his hand to stop whatever they were talking about, leaned way in and said a few words which I’m sure amounted to, “Who the fuck is that mook with the big ears over there?” then the whole freaking table turned and gave me a stare. A mafia stare!
Holy shit, I thought to myself, you’re in a movie all right, you’re Paulie in Pope of Greenwich serving “The Bedbug”! What now, my brand new waiter, what the fuck now?
“Would you gentlemen like to order?” I asked, in a tremolo and pitch normally attributed to the wren. “Or would you rather wait a little while before you do that?” Oh, they waited all right, they waited before they answered for what seemed an eon.
The guy who’d scoped me out then broke the silence. “We’ll call ya’ when we need ya’, pal, okay?” he said. (“Now take a fucking hike,” is what he meant.)
“Of course,” I said, “you got it.” Exit stage left… like a deer in a forest fire.
Well, the whole thing ended up pretty okay (my shoes remained leather not concrete) once I had learned how to balance this delicate act… when to approach, when to disappear… and after Joey, seeing my gaffe, came over and introduced me as an okay guy. And though that gesture thawed the air a bit it didn’t put me totally in the clear, as the eyes that followed me around said I still was auditioning. Which was fine. At least I didn’t have to move to Canada and change my name to “Wally the Welder from Banff”! I would learn my P’s and Q’s and stick around, eh? Roll credits!
Yeah, I love the Italian language, dear reader, especially the way Patsy does it, but not when your friendly bartender becomes the patsy.
Ciao and arrivederci til next week’s Happy Hour.