Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Present at the Creation: Opening Day at a New Cafe

     (10/14/2011) When Raphael Frattini smoked, it was a thing of beauty in spite of itself. Like some Roman demigod reclining in the sky, he lifted his chin and artfully blew, as if sculpting distant clouds or giving invisible doves a momentary joy ride. It seemed to be his way of kissing life.
    One would be unlikely to guess that he had been a cop -- and a damn good one,  it was said -- for the past 30 years, but he had, and there were plenty of people who would attest to it.
    Now that his two boys had their degrees, Liana had been awarded a nursing scholarship and his beloved Sophia was dead and buried back in Sicily, he would do what he had always wanted to do: cook. In just a few hours, Pasta La Vista would open its doors for the first time. And he would feed people: What a heartwarming occupation.
    Film student Rod Gardner was here to make a cinema verite exposition on “the birth of a restaurant.” I came along to take notes for his narration. We had spent several days filming the prelude, and I had enjoyed interviewing the “main characters” to use as background. I thought Rod would be able to make a charming documentary about this unusual collection of people and their shared aspirations for the success of the restaurant. What made our project a bit odd was that the local public television station was making a film about Rod making his film! So there were times when things got a bit claustrophobic.
Everybody adored Raphael.
   ``Oh hello! Hello in there: May I come in?''
    Some guy with a southern drawl startled all of us.
   ``Please,'' Raphael called out. ``Welcome!''
   A pale, fleshy  young man in a T-shirt that implored ``Just Say No Thank You'' glided toward the bar kind of like a figure skater, looking expectantly at each table he passed as if hoping to find a famous person seated there.
   ``You must be Mr. La Vista -- just teasing,'' he grinned, fluffing his bangs. ``I'm here about the job waiting tables. Sidney Fervor, at your service.“
   ``Coffee?'' Raphael offered.
   ``How sweet -- I'd love some,'' Sidney said. ``You're an actual Italian aren't you? That's a good sign. I'm an actual Mississippian, but that's no feather in my cap!"
   ``I'm not the owner,'' Raphael replied, placing a cannoli on the young man's saucer. ``He's a gentleman from Los Angeles. A saxophone player.''      
Yum: cannolis. You can't eat just one.
   ``Well, it would be nicer, I think, if you owned it,'' Sidney said. “Authenticity is everything, don’t you find?”
     “At first, I had my doubts, but Luther is committed. That’s why he hired me,” Raphael replied.
    When Raphael applied for the job, Luther Augustus Miles had immediately put him at ease. Luther was all rhythm and heat, snap-crackling fingers and jazzy repartee. His head was constantly nodding to the beat of some inaudible riff. He drummed tables, thumped passing backsides, drew everyone into his playful dance -- an African-American  Zorba. You hear a laugh like Luther's, you know the man is a good man.
    When Luther asked Raphael about his training as a chef, Raphael answered simply, ``My mama and my wife -- God love them both,'' and Luther had said, ``That's good enough for me, man.''
    It was the kind of gesture an Italian doesn't forget.
   ``Hey Rafe, my brother, what time you got?'' a voice called from above.
   ``Yikes!  He startled me,'' Sidney cried.
   ``Quarter to eight,'' Raphael said, squinting upward. ``It's looking very beautiful, Travis -- bellisimo!''
   The wizened black artist lying on a platform suspended from the ceiling grinned down and said, ``I bet you ain't never seen no colored folks in Heaven before.''              
Travis painted a Sistine version that encompassed  all races.
   ``It's about time,'' Raphael said.
   ``A terrible oversight,'' Sidney agreed. ``This is breathtaking -- a Sistine ceiling for our multicultural city!'' He walked among the tables and looked up at each dramatic scene. Muscular, graceful and aglow, Travis's figures -- which ranged in hue from very white to very black -- reached out to each other, danced, shared, exulted, grieved and feasted. Fat baby angels supervised approvingly against a backdrop of dawn-tinged clouds. 
  ``What talent! Are you local, Travis?'' When Sidney spoke,  he tilted his head one way or the other as if to encourage the perception that he was harmless. He reminded me of Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie.”    
Sidney had a 'Tootsie'-like demeanor.
   ``I'm homeless, sir, so I s'pose I'm local wherever I happens to be.''
   ``Luther found him sleeping out back one morning. He fed him, gave him work,”  Raphael told Sidney.
   ``The dude's lettin' me stay at his place -- can you dig that? I told him up front I've got a record,'' Travis said, continuing his painstaking work.
   ``That was pretty brave of him -- does he have children?'' Sidney inquired.
    “Nope, just a beautiful wife from Ethiopia,” Travis said. ``He's really helpin’ me turn my life around, and she is, too. I ain't had a drink in near four weeks.''
Luther's wife was a gorgeous Ethiopian woman.
   ``A drink! What a luscious idea!'' Sidney said impishly.
   Raphael poured a jigger of Amaretto into each coffee cup and refilled them.
   ``To your luck!'' he toasted. ``Here's Luther.''
   Luther boppped in, his arms spread wide like a child running through a sprinkler. He was tall, with a short Afro and a well-trimmed beard, and he was beaming, as he did almost all the time.
   ``This is it y'all -- opening day! Man, oh man, oh man! I'm pumped!'' he said, playing the bar like it was a xylophone. ``You nervous or what, Raphael?''    
Luther and his jazz  band had performed throughout Europe.

   ``Just happy.'' The older man smiled at Luther's energy.
   ``Ain't nothing gets to this cat,'' Luther said, putting a choke hold on the powerfully built chef. ``I'd be sweatin' bullets if I was in his shoes.''
   ``You love the food, it loves you back -- just like a woman,'' Raphael said, lighting a cigarette. ``Luther, this is Sidney Fervor, here about the job.''
   ``A pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir,” Sidney said, Southern-belle style.
   ``We lost our second wait person at the last minute -- she got a job with the traveling cast of `Cats' -- ain’t that a dynamite way to earn a living?'' Luther said. ``You got some experience, boy? You got a get-busy attitude?“
   ``Slaving away for you would be like being in the Promised Land compared to my other job,'' Sidney said. ``It's making me so depressed I just had to find something fun to balance it out. Your advertising has been so clever and all, I was  just totally attracted to the idea of signing on. The one where the Arnold-character aims the spaghetti fork at the camera and says, `Pasta La Vista, baby' gets me every time, it's so darling!''
   Raphael saw that Luther listened to this eccentric gentleman quizzically but with respect and liked him all the more for it. Sidney was someone who had been wounded by life, Raphael felt it strongly.
   ``I'll go back and check the sauces,'' Raphael said. ``All is made but the pesto. The pine nuts will be delivered soon.''
Pesto was one of many pasta sauces that Raphael made.
   ``Good man!'' Luther said, slapping him on the back. ``This dude's gonna get us all so fat, we'll have to form our own Overeater's Anonymous chapter. Except we won't be anonymous, but hey: We're too cool for that anyway.''
   ``Lord have mercy, what a heavenly girl!'' Sidney said, turning from the bar toward the large front window. A young lady with flowing blonde hair peered inside.
   ``It's open, baby!'' Luther shouted.
   She burst in, shiny faced and smelling like some kind of tropical fruit.     
Missy was ignorant, devout and delightful.

    ``Oh, Mr. Miles -- I know I'm three hours early, but I was too excited to stay home. I thought I could help or maybe just walk around and practice. Am I too silly?''
   ``I think you're precious,'' Sidney gaped.
   ``How do you do,'' the young lady replied. She had a windblown look about her, although not a hair seemed out of place. Her eyes and cheeks had a breezed, buffed quality and her voice was becomingly breathless. She was the kind of girl who is wont to make remarks such as ``I definitely might.''
   ``Missy Morrison, this is Sidney Fervor. He'll be waiting tables alongside you.''
   ``I'm hired? Oh, I'm overjoyed!'' Sidney exclaimed, hugging an oak pillar.
   ``Why, you're the Siberia guy from the university, aren't you?'' Missy inquired. ``Mr. Miles, this man is famous! Ted Koppel had him on `Nightline.' At least that's what I heard. I never stay up that late, it's bad for your skin.''
   ``Siberia guy?'' Luther said.
Poor Sidney wanted an escape from Siberia.
   ``That's my problem, Luther. May I call you Luther? I love that name!'' Sidney eagerly replied. ``Siberia! What could I have been thinking? I guess it was because my daddy hated the Soviets so much that I majored in Russian history. To defy  the brute! I thought it would be funny to specialize in Siberia.''
   ``You got that right,'' Luther grinned.
   ``What's the funny part?'' Missy asked, eating a maraschino cherry from behind the bar.
   ``It's dragging me down, I'm quite despondent,'' Sidney said. ``I tried doing the afternoon shift at Mrs. Field's Cookies at the mall, but I guess I'm  not a cookie person. Oh wait, that's not true -- I love cookies. I guess I'm not a mall person -- those snooty yuppies shelling out three bucks apiece  to get a brownie and milk for their Bennetton brats.They're way too cute and vanity-stricken for my taste."
Those spoiled, vain  Bennetton brats!
    "Plus, the boys use mousse! And wear earrings! They pose around like they're waiting to be discovered by Gentlemen's Quarterly! It's more depressing than the Soviet steppes any day!''
   ``I love the mall,'' Missy said.
   ``But I thought this might be a homey place to spend my afternoons.''
   ``That's what we're aiming for,'' Luther nodded.
   ``Can I dress up? Oh Missy, I'm excited too. I'll dash home and find the perfect thing to wear. Oh, I hope Luther will play his saxophone!''
   ``It's like we're about to have a baby,'' Missy said. ``I'm proud of us already.''
   ``Luther, I am so grateful! I'm so honored!'' Sidney said as he headed toward  the door.
   ``They'll be no suckin' up in this here rest-o-raunt,'' the voice from the ceiling called down. ``Luther done told me that already.''
   ``I don’t mind sucking up -- that’s how I’ve survived most of my life,'' Sidney replied cheerfully. “Hasta la vista, dears!''
   ``I didn't know you played the saxophone, Mr. Miles. I better not tell Brian -- he'd be mad at me. He thinks jazz people are dangerous,'' Missy said.
   Brian Gunderson, Missy's fiance, was in the Caribbean for two years, serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
    (Ever since I had left Salt Lake City, in 1971, my life seemed to have been a magnet for Mormons. Everywhere I went, there they were. Not that there‘s anything wrong with that.)
   ``Has your fiance ever known a `jazz person'?'' Luther asked.
   ``No, and he never had even met a black person until he landed in Jamaica. He was so scared he had to fast and pray for days before he got the courage to go out and start knocking on doors, or whatever they have there. He says jazz people smoke pot, and they're atheists.''
   ``Does he, now? I promise not to be dangerous,'' Luther laughed. ``Why don't you set up the tables while I go back and help Raphael with the salads and antipasta.''
   ``I adore Raphael. Next time I need to have a good cry, I'm going to run straight into his arms,'' Missy said wistfully. ``He reminds me of my late father.”
   ``That’s funny -- he reminds me of my father, too,'' Luther replied, patting her on the shoulder.


    Presiding over the kitchen was a bit like being back on the beat for Raphael Frattini. So many elements to keep in mind, so many hot spots, each requiring a different degree of firmness or gentleness, decisiveness or patience. Both jobs offered constant reminders that real masculinity has a womanly aspect: You exert calm authority with a good and generous heart, and things work out.
    But Raphael  already felt more authority as a chef than he ever had as an officer of the law. There he had a constituency -- vast, faceless, theoretical. Here he would have an audience. Everything he did -- every nuance of seasoning, every little nicety of garnishment, every special care he took to tenderize, refine -- would be experienced, promptly and palpably. Raphael was feeling a happiness that had eluded him since Sophia's death.
A dream kitchen for a 'dream-come-true' chef.
   ``Smells like somebody knows what they's doin', homeboy,'' Luther said, striding in and getting the mixed salad greens out of the refrigerator. ``This is such a trip, man, it's a dream come true for me.''
   ``Owning a restaurant?'' the older man asked amiably.
   ``Owning an Italian restaurant,'' Luther said. ``When I was on the road a few  years back with my band, we went all over Europe, South America, even the Middle East, doin' club gigs. Italy blew my mind. The people. . .I loved those people. Italians was COLORED people. I felt like they was MY people. I cried, man, like I was at a family reunion. The way they lived. I think black people would have lived that way if they'd had a different history. That don't rub you the wrong way does it?''
   ``It honors me,'' Raphael said.
   ``The families was so tight. Even the poorest ones lived with style -- it came natural. They watched out for each other. They worked hard. They partied hard -- man, they really knew how to get down. It shames me to say it, but for a couple  of months I played the fool tryin' to turn myself into an Italian. Lord help me! If we hadn't gotten the concert job in Africa, I might still be disgracin' my name.''
Just one big Italian family, ready for one big dinner.
   ``It's a no shame to dream,'' Raphael said, butchering a side of veal. ``I have to tell you something about my teenage daughter, maybe makes you feel better.  She wants to be black! This is honest truth. We adopt her a few years after we come to America. We have two boys already; we want a girl. So they give us this beautiful brown baby daughter, Liana. What a joy she is to us.  When Sophia died two years ago, Liana starts thinking, 'Well, maybe my real mother is alive.' Then she starts wondering, 'What is my real mother like?' Pretty soon she is saying, 'I think I'm black! Look at me close-- you can't miss it.'''

   ``Is she?'' Luther asked.
   ``Maybe so, I don't know. Maybe she is Venezuelan or Egyptian or Tongan -- it's no matter to me. She's my baby.''
   ``She gonna find out?''
   ``She's trying to -- I give her my blessing. It's her right.''
   ``So it's not gonna tear you up if she's African-American?''
   ``Now it's my turn to be shamed. I swear to God that I love her the same no matter her blood. But if she begins to dating black boys, it’s  gonna be little bit hard for me. This is a feeling  I was surprised to find in myself. Deep in my stomach. Is this what is meant by 'bigot'? I am sorry. I am throwing all these things from my mind. Can you forgive me, son?''
   ``Oh man, there ain't nothing to forgive,'' Luther said, hugging Raphael from behind. ``I've liked you from the git go.''


   Missy did a sort of skipping dance as she set the tables and thanked her Heavenly Father that she was able to begin a nest egg while gaining practice at being a good wife. And Brian would be the perfect “lord and master” of their household: He saw ultimate truths and morals in everything. ``Let that be a lesson to you,'' he was always saying. It would be an honor to be sealed to him for eternity in the temple.        
   Missy had told Brian she planned to get a job at with Church’s social services agency, which had been true at the time. There she would have worked with and for Mormons, serving Mormons and being referred to as ``Sister Morrison.''
    But when Brian flew off to that exotic place to be immersed in a different race and culture, she had succumbed to a tiny moment of sinful thinking, a flash of envy. Once Brian got back, her whole life would revolve around the Church --  all calico and gingham, cheerful, humble, each moment dedicated to a higher purpose and power in concert with her fellow Saints.

    She looked forward to that with all her heart, and also to the ``multiply and replenish the Earth'' part.
   But surely there was no harm in briefly tasting the outside world first. It seemed to Missy that she had been young forever. Everyone at the restaurant represented a new dimension, a new challenge, a new knowledge on her horizon. She had a window of opportunity here -- between the protectorship of her father and that of Brian -- in which she had perhaps her only real chance in life to be brave.
   Missy sat down and began putting roses and baby's breath into bud vases. Speaking of challenges, Joshua Radcliffe, the bartender, rolled his mountain bike in  the front door, singing something about ``put on your red shoes and dance the blues / under the moonlight, the serious moonlight.'' Serious moonlight? He nodded pleasantly at Missy but didn't stop to chat; he went right back to the bar and  began scrubbing things down, singing and tossing his dreadlocks from side to side.   
Josh was gorgeous, but Missy didn't care.
    His dreadlocks! Oh my heck, Missy had never actually known a man with long hair. She had also never known a man who treated her the same way he treated other men: no flirtation, no special deference, no apparent awareness of her attractiveness or even her oppositeness. She was just a person to him -- how unsettling! She hardly knew him and already he had asked her several times, ``What do you think?'' Where she came from, this was plain inappropriate.
    She felt  like making him love her just to get back at him, but that wouldn't be Christlike (or would it?). He must be one of those secular humanists -- Missy tingled with conviction about it. One day he was carrying a book by Hegel. Or Hesse or Homer, or one of those types. Or was it Haydn? And why else would he live in the poorest part of town, among all those welfare people, when his father was a rich broadcasting tycoon with a mansion that had tennis courts and a pool?
    The sticker on his bike bag said ``Smash racism.'' Plus, he was a vegetarian; his black sleeveless T-shirt said ``Give peas a  chance'' on the front and ``I yam what I yam'' on the back.

Maybe that was why he glowed like he did, all that fresh produce. His auburn hair shone with red-gold highlights and his skin was golden and his arms and legs were covered with a coppery down. His body was beautiful, tightly muscled like a gymnast's (Missy noted this merely as a child of God who rejoices in His handiwork).
   ``Want a fruit-juice spritzer, Missy?'' Joshua called out.
   ``Thanks yes. No liquor in mine, though.''
   ``Mine either  -- I never touch the stuff. Or coffee or tea.”
   ``Or cigarettes?''
   ``God no!''
   ``Why, you're living the Word of Wisdom! How does that make you feel?''
   ``Like dumping some tequila in it, to be honest with you.''
   Missy turned toward the door just in time to see a massive floral arrangement rustle into the room atop a pair of corduroy trousers and tasseled loafers.    

   Reflexively, she blushed.
   ``This is too much!'' she cried, moving forward. ``Whoever did it shouldn't have.''
   ``I seriously doubt that your name is Luther Miles,'' the blond man behind the flowers said. He presented a facsimile of a smile that seemed designed primarily to showcase his perfect teeth. ``If I'd known you were here, I'd have brought two.''
   ``I'm so embarrassed!'' Missy said, crossing her arms over her chest in a sort of modern-dance representation of distress.
   ``I guess you're used to getting flowers.''
   ``And candy and angora sweaters. And eau de toilette,'' Missy nodded. ``People are so dear.''
   ``Yes we are -- especially me. I'm Randy Balmforth, the mayor's chief of staff,'' he said. He didn't actually flourish anything, but he seemed to say it with a flourish. ``The mayor sends his warmest personal wishes for the success of Pasta La Vista, baby.''
   ``This is about the most exciting thing that ever happened to me,'' Missy swooned. ``The mayor? I knew I'd love this job. Let's put the flowers over on the bar, where everyone can see them.
   ``Josh look -- is this sweet or what! Flowers from the mayor!''
   ``I don't know if it's sweet or not,'' the bartender said, methodically drying and polishing cocktail glasses. ``Who paid for them? Not your conniving mayor, I'd wager. It was the working people who picked up the tab. The taxpayers. Gee thanks, Mr. Mayor, for spending my money to make yourself look magnanimous.''
   ``For rude, Joshua!'' a flustered Missy cried. ``That's not true, is it Mr. Balmforth?''

   ``Randy,'' he corrected her, lightly touching her neck, which seemed odd, but  maybe he was raised that way. ``The taxpayers, through their duly elected Council members, have seen fit to allocate discretionary funds to the mayor. He has sent these flowers in the legitimate exercise of that discretion.''
   ``Isn't that OK, Joshua?''
   ``He sounds like he's talking from a script.''
   ``It's part of my job to be relentlessly quotable,'' Balmforth said, heading
for the door and once more exhibiting his teeth. ``I'll be back some time soon for a meal -- it smells great in here. And it‘s not just the waitress!”
   ``He's a notorious user -- don't you read the newspaper?'' Joshua asked.
   ``I read the Style section and the recipes -- that's enough for me. I'm not interested in all those smoke-filled guns,'' Missy retorted. ``I'll go back and tell Luther about the flowers.''
   But when she reached the kitchen door, she saw that she shouldn't intrude: Raphael was bent over a steaming pot, stirring rapidly with a whisk. Luther had one arm around his shoulder and with the other was slowly adding grated cheese to the mixture. Their heads nearly touched.
    ``...and Sophia always tell me, any time you feed a person, they become family,'' Raphael said, dipping in a spoon and holding it to Luther's lips.


  In thirty minutes, Pasta La Vista would be serving its premiere luncheon. As final preparations were being made, a nicely rounded young woman in a vested peasant ensemble swept through the front door, her dangly earrings flying out behind her like the wing flaps on a descending aircraft.
   ``What a divine little bistro,'' she said through crimson lips.   
When Sidney returned, he was different but still fascinating.
      ``It's our first day. We're about to pop with anticipation,'' Missy said, as the lady adjusted her sandal.
   ``Lunch is nearly ready, ma'am,'' Luther added. ``I'd be pleased to offer you  a drink in the meantime.''
   ``I fooled y'all! I can't believe it! It's me -- Sidney!'' the person cried, removing rhinestone-rimmed sunglasses.
   ``Sidney!'' Luther exclaimed, on the verge of both laughter and consternation
    ``Sidney, Sidney -- oh my holy hell!''
   ``I'm sorry I'm late,'' Sidney said, twirling in the many-hued costume. ``I had to wash my outfit.''
    Luther looked stunned but not quite dismayed.
    ``You told me I could dress up, Luther! This is the non-Siberia Sidney you're  experiencing. The non-Y chromosome Sidney. It is the preferable Sidney -- for waitressing, anyway. My dear wife prefers the other one, of course.''
   ``Your wife!'' Missy exclaimed.
   ``Oh, we're mad for each other. She's a simultaneous translator. From Budapest -- isn't that romantic? But I have this little need, and she understands -- we have the most handsome therapist! Named Charlotte Auchincloss -- doesn't that sound rich? You'll let me stay, won't you Luther? I'll do such a good job, I promise!''
   A still slightly confused Luther looked to Raphael, who nodded reassuringly.
   ``Cross-dressing is a perfectly harmless heterosexual aberration,'' Joshua called out from behind the bar. ``I hope we can respect her for who she is. Gender is so relative. What do you think, Missy?''
   There he went again. Missy pretended not to hear.
   ``I love your wig,'' she said, stroking Sidney's platinum locks. ``And your outfit is adorable.''
   ``Marina and I could make you one too,'' Sidney said. ``We could be twins!''
   ``I've always wanted to, but my brother never would. Say, you aren't one of those Peeping-Thomas people, are you?''
   Luther was still shaking his head at Sidney's new incarnation.
   ``I gots to put my two-cents worth in,'' the voice from the ceiling called down. ``She makes one fine-looking woman.''
   ``Man, you’re still up there? We're opening for business in 15 minutes, Travis,'' Luther said. ``Put your gear away and get down from there!''
   ``Let's all of us get down, my brothers and sisters,'' Sidney declared in her hot-mama way.
   ``Right on!'' Joshua said.
   ``Cominicia la nostra vita!'' Raphael said majestically.
   ``Bump dee bump,'' Sidney danced.
   ``All credit and praise to Allah,'' Luther murmured, bowing his head. "ستایش به خدا "
   ``Allah? Oh my gosh!'' Missy sighed. Brian was going to have a cow.

Note: The names in this account have been changed at the request of several of the principals.