the sun is taunting me, but i can go in my sewing room where it can't reach around all the angles of my house to find me. maybe i will make a new shirt today, from an old shirt. or i could buy a bottle of wine, hide out in the kitchen and make that old italian recipe i've been meaning to get around to for weeks...minestra, pasta and beans with kale. andiamo, daniella...that's what maria would say when i didn't high-tail it out of the kitchen with my big, brown, cork-covered tray full of pasta and beans for the lunch crowd. maria was the day chef at the restaurant where i worked on and off from the age of 18 until 20. she was short and square-ish, with chestnut eyes that matched her hair, which was short and swooped up over her narrow forehead to one side, the right, i think. her accent was as authentic as the old-style recipes that came from calabria, the part of italy from where most of my hometown originated. i loved to hear her talk and pictured her accent as fancy, scroll-y serifs attached to every word.
the restaurant was owned by the uncle of my best friend. i have a picture of she and i in the waitress station on a new year's eve 5,475 days ago, plus or minus. we're both in black pants and white button down shirts, leaning against each other next to the coffee machine, our heads so close that our black hair blended together. we were so young. drunk, too. i remember us making drinks for the customers and sneaking a little for ourselves that night.
in the waitress station was a door that led to the empty warehouse next door, and you just never knew when my friend's uncle would appear from it. i never actually went inside that warehouse, and i liked to think there was something otherworldy over there. it would explain why her uncle went over there, because he was a curious guy himself. he was a lot of verys: very tall and quiet and enigmatic. we spoke in brief flashes when one of us would say something from our respective sides of the kitchen, or when he would happen to be in the office, which doubled as the dessert room, where i would be scooping praline ice cream for the stregata. despite the brevity of our conversations, we got each other...and in the very few times i've seen him over the years, although we barely speak and barely ever did, i can tell we still do. affinities can grow in such interesting ways.
the restaurant was frequented by doctors, lawyers, rich wives. my friend's uncle designed the front room, which was long and narrow and had hand-carved art deco wood panels on either side of the entryway; a huge, single-piece handmade bar—a work of art in itself; and 15-foot, original tin ceilings. the back room was almost unchanged for 30 years...it had a mood all its own, infused with warmth...the aged, dark carpeting, a mural of venice and wooden sconces on the wall, bottles of deep red chianti on the mantle in the tiny bar that doubled as a waitress station. the restaurant's side entrance, the original one, was in the back corner of that room, right past the decorative fountain...was there ever water in it?...down a short flight of stairs that led to a small foyer. almost no one used that entrance, not even me, but it was still my favorite.
the surrounding neighborhood was my town's version of little italy, where my dad grew up and where i spent many afternoons of my childhood with my nanni and her two sisters, my great aunts. they lived together for as long as i can remember. before moving in with great aunt judy, my nanni and great aunt phyl (short for philomena, i always liked that) lived one block from the restaurant, in a white house with two neighbors: a small brick bar on one side and a biker called "wild fee" on the other. fee wasn't a big man but made up for it with long hair and a ZZ Top beard and of course the requisite leather biker gear. what a sight for a kid's imagination, ol' wild fee. i wonder where he is now.
the restaurant had its characters, too...the woman with the squinty eyes and bad skin and raspy voice that matched her just-as-raspy personality. she was the aunt of a boy i'd dated, though i never told her i knew. she had a german shepherd named chivas, which was also her drink of choice. she'd sit at the bar, never at a table, always on a weekday, and always before the dinner crowd trickled in. she gave great face massages, and i remember thinking once that i hoped her fingers wouldn't smudge my eyebrows i'd just filled in with black eyeliner pencil. then there was the retired pilot with the elegant-yet-approachable wife who always wore mauve lipstick and her auburn hair pulled back and had the longest eyelashes i'd ever seen...falsies? i could never tell. most of the waitresses didn't seem to care for him...something about him being a jerk or sarcastic or both...but he and i, we got along just fine. i'd even call us pals. long after i quit, i'd see him at panera bread and we'd chat, though after the old restaurant our dynamic was never quite the same. not bad, just different.
after the old restaurant nothing was the same. it never is, afterward. after anything.
i've been writing on and off for hours. thinking about place, and about time. somewhere in the midst of it the sun went down. and i like today better.