It was one of those restaurants doomed to fail, but not because of the food. The food was good. Actually it wasn’t just good, it was great. Real Italian. Like somebody’s nonna spent all day slaving over a hot stove. Fresh pasta, pillowy soft. Exquisite red sauce, peasant-like, chunky. Silky cream sauce, rustic bread. The food wasn’t the problem – the location of Big Tony’s was terrible.
I thought I could help, with all the dewy idealism of any neophyte who thinks she knows better than the old guy running the place. Maybe I was full of baloney, but honestly, you should have seen the place. A garage, still used as a garage, with lawnmowers and rakes and stuff piled in the back corner and hung on the cinderblock walls. Like all the buildings downtown it was tall, long and narrow, squished between other tall, long and narrow buildings. On the east side was a dollar store, a windowless soulless place that sold crap made by toddlers in the world’s poorest countries. Sometimes I could hear bumps and low laughing sounds coming from behind the store’s cement wall. On the west side was an apartment building with windows looking into Big Tony’s restaurant. It was weird having windows looking into another building but at least they were pretty, trimmed in turquoise with pink window boxes stuffed with plastic geraniums. The apartment building was full of old people who would sit at their windows like sentries, watching what was going on in the restaurant. They didn’t say much and they rarely smiled, just watched what was going on with corpse-faced pallor.
Every day Big Tony arrived at his restaurant hours before it was scheduled to open. He went to the back of his garage, behind a curtain that led to a warren of small rooms – washrooms, a storeroom and a kitchen, where he prepped food for the evening ahead. When the pasta was made and the red sauce was settling in for an all-day simmer, Big Tony and I tried to make the dining area presentable.
It was my job to vacuum the floor. What a job. I’d never seen such a terrible carpet. Thin, dark, musty. I’d push the antique Electrolux back and forth across the vastly empty space, dutifully trying to make the carpet better, all the while chirping in Big Tony’s ear that he needed to throw it out, get new flooring, get rid of the lawnmower, for crying out loud, who has a lawnmower in a restaurant? Big Tony would ignore me. He was busy covering up the lawnmower and other garage stuff with black velvet curtains. I tried to tell him that just because it was expensive velvet didn’t make the outline of the lawnmower less visible.
“Get rid of this junk, Tony,” I said. “Get a shed. Put it up out back. Put your lawnmower in it and your garden hose and all this crap. Then burn this carpet and install some nice hardwood, the shiny stuff. And for god’s sake, put some insulation and drywall over the dollar store wall. That place freaks me out.”
“You have such a vivid imagination,” Big Tony said. He was setting up tables and chairs, sweating with the effort.
“Look at you. Sweating. You shouldn’t have to set this up every day. If you decided, once and for all, that this was a restaurant, and not a restaurant-slash-garage, you wouldn’t have to do this. You’re gonna have a heart attack some day, Tony, I swear you’re going to do a face plant right in your spaghetti sauce.”
“Bah,” Big Tony said.
He continued setting up, I continued giving him unwanted decorating tips and the old people in the windows continued to look down at us, like paintings where the eyes moved.
I never told you what Big Tony looked like, did I? Picture James Gandolfini in his role as Tony Soprano.
And I never mentioned, until now, that this was a dream I had the other night, a dream that was so real that I missed it, yearned for it, as soon as I woke up.
I loved James Gandolfini as Tony. I had a thing for him, actually, a wee crush. I was sad when The Sopranos came to an end and, while I tried to see Gandolfini in all his roles after that, it wasn’t the same. He was born to play Tony, typecast for good or for bad, but mostly for good.
That I dreamed a dream where the two of us worked side by side in a restaurant, him steadfast and true, me yammering in his patient but put upon ear, was nice.
I can’t believe he’s dead.