I have not posted for a long time, but not for lack of activity. In October I had a book party at my church, St. Philips Episcopal in Dycker Heights, Brooklyn. Reading, sales, refreshments, the whole bit! And this Friday I will be off to Miami to take part in the international book fair. I'll be in the Author Solutions section, doing a book signing, then making a little video nearby. In the mean time, I am learning to drive for the first time ever, and I hope later on that will help in my efforts to spread the word. My website will come on soon, and I will post information about that.
Meantime, in honor of Veterans Day, here is one of my Bay Ridge stories about a businessman who served in Vietnam.
They told Alex that his father, who died in the big war, was a born soldier, though he’d have been happy to go on fixing cars and making babies. In the pictures, he looked great in a dark sort of way, and seemed to be telling his oldest son to be prepared.
No one could have done a better job. Alex became a crack shot with a bb gun, then a real gun. He followed box car racing and participated a little. When other boys were playing in Little League, he studied the way machines worked, and got into Advanced Placement science and math. He camped in the mountains and volunteered with the Eagle Scouts. He got A’s at MIT, where he learned to hold his liquor and have sex without babies or disease.
So, of course, when he was drafted for Vietnam, they made him a cook. He would slave in the wet heat at 3 AM, preparing not very inspiring food which had to be dispensed at top speed to hundreds of grumpy, half asleep men. In return, during recreation, he got permission to sleep. He had never cared much about food, but this stuff, to his intense disgust, was making him fat. He got Bill, his younger brother who was in pre-med, to send him a book of isometrics, which he did whenever he had to wait. The Army was all about waiting, and soon the flab went away.
Alex never shot anyone and was never shot at. But his entire unit came down with a virulent strain of some Asian disease, and a lot of them died. He lost his beautiful Greek skin and some of his hair. He would have brownish, rucked up skin for the rest of his life. Periodically, his digestive system erupted, and he would be unable to eat, and be weak and weepy, and have to rest for a day or two.
His sole purpose became to survive his two years and get home alive. Lydia was waiting for him. He would make airplanes, or houses, or highways. They would live in the country and have two beautiful children.
During his last six months, Fr. George came to do the Catholic mass. Being Greek Orthodox, Alex was allowed to go to either the Catholic or the Protestant service. He liked the ritual of the Mass, though the bad behavior of the Catholics and their doctrinal errors had been referred to often in Sunday school. This young fellow was full of enthusiasm about God, and he compared Christ to a lighthouse. If you kept your eyes on him you would not go aground. That was the only difference between the saints and the rest of us. They kept their eyes on the light, and became beacons themselves. Alex went to see him, and ended up confessing to him, though he could not give absolution. Instead, he handed him a little statuette of a lighthouse, and a little leaflet he had written. Alex kept those with him for the rest of his life.
When he got home to Bay Ridge, there were no jobs. Everyone hated the Vietnam vets. There was a glut of engineers. He lived with Mom and Aunt Sophie and the brothers and sisters, and got a job as a dishwasher at a diner called Chris’, an offshoot of Pegasus that recently opened on Fourth Avenue. It took him five years to save up enough money to marry Lydia and lease an apartment on the second floor of a store on Third Avenue. Then the chef, who drank too much and was resentful about his pay, walked off the job. Until another one could be hired, Alex took over. He was so good that Chris hired him at the old chef’s wages. Ten years later, when Chris retired, Alex bought the store at less than the going price. It was not doing too well, and after walking around the neighborhood thinking, he moved it to Third Avenue and 75th Street, and changed the name to Lighthouse.
Staffing was a problem. The short order cooks came one after another up from Sunset Park. Jose, then Paolo, then Cezar. They began to come late, disappear in the middle of the day, drink on the job, mess up the eggs. So Alex would be back in the kitchen. The girls he hired as waitresses were impossible. Eventually he got Norma, who had divorced her drunk of a husband, to come from across the street and hold down the counter. Then Harry, Rose’s cousin, lost his restaurant in Bensonhurst, and came with an infusion of cash to invest and be a partner, and he managed the help. He was an extravert, and customers loved him; the business grew.
Alex liked cooking now, when everyone was eating lots of butter and sugar and meat and eggs, and he could make it yummy and feel the hum of appreciation. But there was always a fly in the ointment. His niece Susie, who had some ill-defined mental problem, tried being a waitress. She would stand in the aisle, take an order, then get involved in what someone said and hold forth in a loud voice. When people talked to each other at the counter, she interrupted to talk to a third person. She took a dislike to certain customers, such as Jennifer with the bike, and would lean her elbows on the counter and glare at them. People began to avoid the store, or just get take-out. They peered in to see whether Susie was there. Eventually Susie freaked out while the family was on vacation in the old country, and they stuck her in a kind of nursing home over there.
Then Adrian appeared one rainy night with two crying children. They shared a single chicken dinner. Harry brought extra bread and salad, asked a few questions, and found out they were fleeing from her husband, a drunkard who had become violent and abusive. Harry took them in until they could get another place. In the meantime, Adrian became the best waitress they ever had. She showed up when needed, day or night. She remembered the orders, people’s names, and the prices. She put up holiday decorations, and she could add.
Alex had a couple of vendors left over from Chris. They were fine except for Black Cat, the bakers. They began to deliver a day or two late or before 6 AM; they ran out of things or stopped making them. Recipes changed for the worse. There was a batch of muffins with maggots, and they gave new muffins but not money. There was a new outfit that had a proper contract with specifics; they called you to see how things were going; it was a little more expensive. Alex signed on with them, and the next time Fred, the Black Cat driver, asked for the order, he told him he was not going to order from them any more.
“You’ll be sorry,” said Fred.
“Oh yeah? What does that mean?”
A week later, Alex went over to open up, and found the lock glued. He called three locksmiths before one said they could deal with glue. Then he called Manny, getting him up out of bed.
“Did you tell them to glue my lock? This is Alex at Chris.”
“What? No. No, I swear, I wouldn’t.”
“Your driver threatened me.”
“Oh boy. Well, he’s gone.”
“No he’s not. You may need him to testify.”
“You – what?”
Alex laughed. “I’ll send you the locksmith bill, ok?”
“I’ll pay it, don’t worry. But why are you running out on me, after all these years?”
“Do you have half an hour to listen?”
“Yes, but not right now. I’m not even awake yet.”
“OK, go back to sleep. Bye.” Alex hung up the phone, and sat a few minutes in the empty shop, drinking black coffee and thinking. He had realized recently that he would never get out of the diner. His wife had Lou Gehrig’s disease; his son was still in school. He collected lighthouses and set them up around the store. He bought a new American flag and got the building owner to mount a new fancy flagpole. Every morning he put up the flag and every night he took it down. One by one, his old customers were dying, replaced by young ones who said no butter, no mayo, who wanted low fat everything, and complained that the bread was too salty. They did go for the Greek yogurt. The cops, truckers and firemen usually went to New Royal, which was open 24/7.
Then came 9/11. People’s schedules were knocked awry, and they came in and sat there talking for the sake of hearing each other and themselves. They exchanged information, gave reassurance, had a laugh, had a beer. At times they just sat with a cup of tea and wept, and Alex let them. The take out line was out the door – people found he was the quickest, and he would say a word or give a smile, and remind them he had served in Nam. That lasted about five years, then things became less hectic. Alex signed onto an internet food hub, and licensed his bike messengers. Then came the crash of 2008. There were very few customers for supper and night snacks; a few of the same people now came for breakfast or lunch instead. Lydia needed 24 hour aides. The kids moved to Pennsylvania to save living costs. It was around that time Alex fell in love.
She was young and rosy, from a family so long in America they could not say they came from anywhere else. She worked in a doctor’s office, and in her spare time she collected day old bread and muffins for food pantries. Everything made her laugh merrily. She had a long neck, an ample bosom, and nice wide hips accentuated by colorful leggings. She listened, asked questions, cared about everyone, and loved large dogs. He didn’t like her name, Jane, and neither did she, so he called her JJ. Five days a week she came at 6 for his unsold muffins and bagels. One rainy Saturday morning she plunked herself down at the counter, ordered Wheaties and strawberries, and stayed for two hours, chatting with him between customers.
Lydia took a turn for the worse, and Alex stayed late at the Lighthouse until JJ finished work. He’d give her a free dinner at the store, then take her out for a beer and see her home. The first time they kissed, he was so happy he thought it would kill him. Lydia would die, he would marry JJ; he would sell the house, and move to Jersey, where they would raise two kids.
Alex cried a lot at the funeral, where to his surprise the whole Lighthouse staff showed up at one point or another. The kids wanted him to come out and live with them. Instead, he took time off to stay with each of them and play with the grandchildren. Then he began to reveal what his employees knew: there would be a second wife. His kids made the right noises, but their faces slammed shut. It was too soon. He was close to being an old man. The financials didn’t make any sense. He talked about selling the house, then getting an apartment in Pittsburgh. Gee – Dad, in an apartment?
So the marriage was quiet, with old friends and neighbors, in the Pearl Room. The baby came seven months later, and they said she was premature, but as Adrian observed with her signature scowl, “She’s completely healthy.” Two years later came a little boy, shy, with a lisp. Then it was time to sell the house.
Cousin Estelle, Harry’s wife, had started a real estate business when the kids went away to school. She had some beginner’s luck, a few bloopers. Alex had his doubts, but of course he would do his house through her, it would be awful not to. He put her business cards by the cash register from the beginning; now there was the promotional picture of his house on Colonial. She came through at all hours with her customers. One was a speculator trying to buy up the block, so he could build condos after the like to like rules of Gentile finally came off. One had rings on all his fingers and offered cash. At Alex’s insistence, Estelle did a deep check on him – he was in the mob in Chinatown. She managed to shake off a couple of Russians with a record, an underfunded rabbi. Then a great deal came along, but an inspection revealed an asbestos problem. Estelle had thought it was ok if you covered it, but the updated rules required removal. At that point, the idea of selling had to be abandoned.
JJ was not very domestic, and wanted to make money and travel, so they moved in a family from Sunset, who took care of the house and kids in exchange for a break on the rent, and lived on the second floor. Juan created an illegal bathroom and kitchenette up there, and a play room in the attic with a skylight. It took six months to work out schedules, rules about noise and booze and all that. JJ took courses and became a med tech, then a PA. They sent the kids to the nearby Greek parochial school, which meant that Alex occasionally showed up in church. After ten years, they finally had the honeymoon – a month in Europe.
In Paris, Alex ran into Fr. George, a Jesuit working with Arab Christians in the ghetto. His flaming red hair was now a yellow fuzz, and his ruddy cheeks were seamed. He narrowed his eyes and said, “Let me think. Vietnam. The Greek cook. – Sorry, the name won’t come.”
“Of course. Welcome to Paris! Not quite the guide book, is it.”
“Not where you are!”
They both laughed, and had another absinthe. It was no use trying to supervise JJ’s shopping. It was her money, and she was the financial whiz in the family. In fact, she had already begun to straighten out Estelle’s real estate business. Seemed that everything was going to work out fine, as long as he left it alone.