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Bone in the throat, p.14
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       Bone in the Throat, p.14

           Anthony Bourdain
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  A red Alfa Romeo pulled up alongside of him, and Sally looked over at it enviously. Why couldn't he have a car like that? The driver of the Alfa leaned over and rolled down the window on the passenger side. "Hey! Sally Wig!" said Al.

  Sally rolled down his own window, which sucked some of the rubber stripping down into the door with it. He looked into the Alfa, trying to figure out who it was that drove such a nice car, dared call him that name to his face.

  "Hey, Sally Wig," said Al. "New car, Sally?"

  Sally stared at the man. He looked like a cop. What was a cop doing in a nice car like that? Probably on the take. Sally mentally reviewed all the friendly policemen he was aware of, trying to place the face.

  "Hey candy-ass," the man was saying, "they make you drive that piece a shit? What? You don't rate a Caddy? Not even a Lincoln? What the hell's wrong? I thought you were comin' up in the world . . . Drivin' around in a car like that . . ."

  Infuriated, Sally struggled with the door handle, anxious to get out of the Buick, to reach over into the Alfa and strangle this son of a bitch, talking to him like that. . . He wanted to cave the guy's head in, tear his goddamn teeth out of his head, leave him slumped over the wheel in that fancy car of his. He pawed angrily at the handle. It came off in his hand. The red Alfa pulled away from the crosswalk, leaving Sally at the light, cursing at the top of his lungs and pounding his fist against the dashboard.

  IT WAS ELEVEN O'CLOCK in the morning, and Tommy lingered over his pecan pancakes, reading the food section of The New York Times. The Pink Teacup was almost empty, the only other customers an elderly gay couple, sitting at the other end of the dining room next to the door. Tommy had his newspaper spread out across two tables. He had precut his pancakes into bite-size pieces, so he had his left hand free for the paper while his right hand traveled freely between his plate and his mouth. The Teacup's cook was putting on the collards for dinner sendee, and the lone waitress sat behind the register on a stool, reading People magazine aloud to the cook in a thick Southern accent.

  The front door opened and Al entered the restaurant. "Man, I'm hungry," he announced. He turned to the waitress, "You still serving?" The waitress nodded and went back to reading her magazine.

  Al sauntered over to Tommy's table. "Tommy Pagano, right?"

  Tommy looked up at him, surprised.

  Without hesitating, Al pulled out a chair and sat down across from him. He put his elbow on Tommy's paper.

  "Mind if I join you, Tommy?" he asked.

  Tommy's lips moved but nothing came out. Eventually, he man aged to stammer, "I'm sorry . . . I forget. . . Do I know you? Do I know you from somewhere?"

  Al leaned closer. "FBI, Tommy. My name is Al. I'm a special agent attached to the U.S. Attorney's office here in Manhattan. Boy, is this a coincidence or what?"

  "W-what do you mean?" asked Tommy, putting down his fork.

  "Finding you here. I love this place. You know I been coming here for years. Back in the seventies I used to eat here all the time. What are you eating there, the pecan pancakes? I love those." He turned and called over to the waitress, "Lemme have some of what he's having, dear. And some black coffee." The waitress got up off her stool, wrote out a check, and handed it to the cook.

  Al turned his attention back to Tommy. "I can't get over it. There I am, just a couple of hours ago, sitting in my office looking over your file and I go out to get myself some of those good pecan pancakes they got over here and there you are. Small world."

  "File?" echoed Tommy.

  "Oh, yeah," said Al. "You got a file. I was just reading up on you before I came over."

  "Why, what do I have a file for?" asked Tommy.

  "You got a file. Your uncle, he's got a file. Your uncle's file is this thick, weighs a ton." Al held up one hand with the fingers wide apart from the thumb. "Your file's pretty skinny, you want to know the truth. All bones, no meat."

  "Why do I have a file?" asked Tommy. "What did I do? I didn't do anything."

  Al grinned. "Tommy, you don't have to do anything to get yourself a file. They love filling up files where I work. Like a big vacuum cleaner down there suckin' up all kinds a shit."

  "But—" Tommy protested.

  "I know, I know," said Al sympathetically. "You feel kinda violated. I can understand that. Lotta people feel that way. It's kinda an invasion of your privacy, buncha suits sitting in an office somewhere reading up on you, talkin' about when you had your braces off, if you jerk off with your right hand or your left. I can see as how you'd be a little upset." Al lowered his voice as if to take Tommy into his confidence. "It's just. . . This is the thing. It's just some of the guys I work with . . . some of these guys at my office . . . they seem to think you're some kinda master criminal."

  "Me?" yelped Tommy. "What for? I got grabbed once, when I was a kid, for selling firecrackers. One time my whole life I did a wrong thing. I musta been fourteen years old!"

  "Actually, I think it was fifteen," said Al, helpfully.

  "I never did anything after that. I never had any trouble since then," said Tommy.

  "I know, I know that. That's what I told them at the office. I said, Tommy's a good kid. He's a cook, he's practically a chef down there where he works. He's a sous-chef, am I right? That means you do all the work, right Tommy? I told them. I said, Tommy's working hard at a career. He's not out there hijackin' loads out there in Jersey. He's not whackin' guys inna head. He's not getting any juice off the street."

  "So what's the problem?" asked Tommy, trying to maintain his composure.

  "The problem is this. This is what the problem is. Some of the guys down at the office, well they just don't believe it, you see. They say to me, they say Al, look at all these known organized crime associates this Tommy knows. Look who this Tommy gets seen with.' That's what they say. 'Look who his uncle is,' they say. 'This is not a nice man, this Sally Wig fellow. We know him, we're lookin' at his file, and Al, this uncle this kid has is no good.' "

  "That ain't me," said Tommy. "That's my uncle, I can't do anything about that."

  "They understand that," said Al. "I said to them, you can't blame the kid for that. Who his uncle is. Hell, if I could pick who my relatives were my family would look a lot different than it does. But then they say, 'But, Al, look at some of these pictures, listen to what people are tellin' us. If this kid Tommy is such a nice, clean, hard working young man, what's he doing hanging around with dirtbags like Skinny Di Milito? How come,' they want to know, 'How come when Tommy works late at the restaurant he has late supper with this Skinny character, who is also well known to us? How come when people visit Tommy on this one particular occasion it's like the Roach Motel over there—the guests check in but they don't check out? Why is that?' That's what they ask me." Al paused for a few long seconds. "Where's Freddy Manso, Tommy? Do you know where Freddy is?"

  Tommy went ashen. His hands fumbled shakily for a cigarette. He thought better of it and gave up trying. He reconsidered again and managed to pull a bent Marlboro from his pants pocket.

  "I . . . I . . . don't know," he stuttered.

  "That's what I thought you'd say," said Al. "I said Tommy wouldn't do anything bad to ol' Freddy. Tommy wouldn't get himself involved in a murder. He doesn't know about that sort of thing. He wouldn't hurt anybody. Problem is, they just don't believe that."

  Tommy weaved, pale and shaken over his uneaten food.

  "You don't look too good," said Al. "Maybe I shouldn't have those pancakes after all." Al got up and walked over to the waitress, still sitting behind the register reading her magazine. She looked up at him. He handed her a ten-dollar bill.

  "Cancel that order for me, will ya, sweetheart? I can't stay. I forgot an appointment." He returned to Tommy's table and looked down at Tommy.

  "I didn't mean to put you off your food," he said. Then he turned and walked out the door.


  The chef took his specimen to the urine desk. A lethargic Hispanic woman interrupted h
er conversation with a man in a wheelchair to hand the chef a preprinted label with his name, patient identification number, and the date on it. The chef wrapped the label around his sample bottle, put the bottle in a plastic Ziploc bag from the desk and placed it in a box with a hundred or so other samples. The box was decorated with a cheerful floral-print contact paper that curled at the edges.

  There were two long lines for medication. The chef took his place at the rear of the first line, behind a hulking Irishman with a red, wrinkled face and tattoos on his fingers. He had another tattoo on his forearm. It said BORN DEAD. The people on the line swayed back and forth on worn sneakers like elephants at the zoo. They muttered complaints to each other. "Let's go, let's go . . ." said one man. The Irishman said, "Let's move this line," to nobody in particular. The woman in the next line, across from the chef, held a baby in one arm. There was a hospital bracelet on her wrist. Her black skin was chalky white at the ankles, and there were open sores. She held a thick metal cane with a rubber guard on the end in her other arm.

  When the chef reached the head of the line and stepped up to the window, a red-haired nurse handed him his dose. He signed his name on her clipboard after checking the dose and poured orange drink from a pitcher in the window into the clear plastic cup with the methadone. He stirred it, raised the cup to his mouth, and drank it down. Then he added a bit more juice to the empty cup and drank that, too. Then he walked out the door to Cooper Square.

  Al was sitting on a bench across the street from the clinic when he came out.

  "Yo! Chef!" he called out.

  The chef turned, and the corners of his mouth turned up in a half-smile. "Big Al. Saving Cooper Square for democracy?"

  "Oh, yeah," said Al, grinning widely. "Lotta cominiss activity over here. Gotta stay vigilant."

  "The lady who took my urine sample today looked very suspicious. She had a funny accent and she didn't know who Mookie Wilson was. Maybe you should look into it, check her out," said the chef.

  Al chuckled and put his arm around the chef's shoulders. "So you finally got in the program. I'm really happy for you, Michael. Off the streets and all. That's great. That's really positive."

  "You sound like my counselor," said the chef.

  "Sorry, didn't mean to do that. But I am happy for you. How is it? How's it goin' so far? The meth holding you?"

  "It's fine. Fine," said the chef. "It's better, anyway. A lot better. Not having to score all the time, risking my ass over there every day, waiting to get pinched or for somebody to cut my throat. Yeah, I feel better."

  "How's it feel? Do you get high?"

  "From the methadone?"


  "No, no. I'm on a low dosage and anyway it's not supposed to do that. Feels just right. Just enough so I don't get sick. The first few days, though, they put you on a high dosage. They want your body to get used to, to make the change from the dope. Basically they're hooking you on the methadone. I was so fucked up the first weekend on the program, I mean drooling, nodding, scratching . . . that's how fucked up. I tell you, I was higher than I ever got on the other thing."

  "But now it's okay?" asked Al.

  "Oh, yeah," said the chef. "They bring you down to a lower dosage after a few days. A blocking dose. Now, now I forget I've even done any, not high at all. It's just like something I have to do every morning before I go to work."

  "So that's good," said Al.

  "Beats copping every day," said the chef.

  "How's your counselor?" asked Al.

  "He's a nice old guy. Black dude, retired. His kids are all gone and he needs something to do. He's a nice man, but it's like talking to somebody from Mars. Better him than some of the others. He was never a junkie at least. The ex-junkies who counsel are all like Muslim fundamentalists or something. Hard-asses. They know all junkies lie. And they're right. But these guys won't believe you you tell them the time of day. They'll look at you like you're trying to scam them. No . . . I like the guy I have. He's nice, and I think he's happy he's got me. He doesn't have too many people who can construct a sentence for him or who actually work for a living. I guess he gets a lot of disappointments doing what he does."

  "So how long you gonna be on the program?" asked Al.

  "I don't know. The people here, the counselors, the director, they pretty much want you to stay on for life. You talk about detoxing from the methadone someday, they smile at you like 'Yeah, right. We'll be seeing you again, asshole.' People who leave the program tend to go back to the other thing."

  "You think you're gonna do that?" asked Al.

  "Go back someday? Not if there's any other alternative. No, no way. But I'm not gonna kid myself. I didn't have that dose tomorrow, I'd be right back at it. On the other hand, I don't want to be down here sucking down jungle juice with a bunch of other scumbags every morning for the rest of my life. It's not enough to not be a junkie someday. I don't even want to see any junkies."

  "So someday you'll get off?"

  "Yeah. When the time is right. When I think I can handle it for sure. You can go on a slow reduction. It's too early though. I'll know when I'm ready."

  "You gotta get well, get your shit together first," said Al.

  "Yeah. I'll know when I can hack it," said the chef.

  "Good. That's really good."

  "So. What do you want?" asked the chef.

  "I figured I'd take you out to lunch," said Al. "You like raw fish? I thought we'd have us some sushi a place I know and shoot the shit. You eat yet?"

  "No. But I'm not dressed," said the chef.

  "Forget about. I'm not either," said Al. "You don't have to dress for this place. Guys who run the joint are running around in their fuckin' bathrobes there. C'mon, let me take you out to lunch. My treat."

  "I don't know," said the chef.

  "C'mon. I won't bite you. Not much anyway."

  "There were a few things I was gonna do," said the chef.

  "It'll be fun," insisted Al. "I'm fuckin' hungry here, alright? I gotta talk to you about a few things comin' up. You think I'm hangin' around out fronta a methadone clinic gettin a fuckin suntan? I came down here to see you. We gotta talk. You want to talk over a nice plate of sushi or you wanna come down to the office and maybe get a Snickers bar and a cup a coffee outta a machine? Your choice."

  "I guess I'll go with the sushi," said the chef.

  "Alright, then," said Al. "Now we're talkin'."

  AL WAITED until after lunch, when they were just finishing the green tea ice cream, to come to the point. "Sorry to bring up business after such a nice meal, but you know . . ."

  The chef slouched down in his chair a few inches.

  "It's getting near showtime," said Al.

  "What the fuck does that mean?"

  "What it means is you have to do something for us," said Al.

  "Oh, yeah? Like what?" asked the chef.

  "Like talkin' to your good friend Tommy," said Al.

  "About what? We been through this. What can I do? He doesn't talk about anything like you want to know. I don't think he knows anything. Why don't you just leave him alone. And me too," protested the chef.

  "We have to know some things that Tommy knows. He's gotta talk to us. You've got to get him to come in."

  "Oh, maaan," groaned the chef. "I don't . . . I can't. . ."

  "Listen. Just shut up and listen to me for a second. Your friend Tommy is gonna be having some big, big problems in the very near future. He got himself implicated in some serious crimes, some pretty heavy shit. We got him placed at the scene of a homicide. That makes him, at best, a material witness. And every day that goes by that he doesn't talk to us, he looks better and better for accessory or obstruction. Some of the people I work with, they like the guy for murder. Okay? So you understand what I'm saying here? This kid is headed down the tubes. Sooner or later, he's gonna be taking the free bus ride out to Rikers, and then maybe upstate. That's if he's fuckin lucky. Maybe, after he gets called before the grand jury,
a couple a Uncle Sally's goombahs are gonna shoot him in the head."

  "I don't get it," said the chef. "What did he do?"

  "He did something," said Al. "We don't think he did something. We know he did something. Alright?"

  "What am I supposed to do?"

  "You're his friend. You're his good buddy and confidant. You're always saying that. Are you his friend?"

  "Yes," said the chef, sadly. "He's my friend."

  "Well your friend is in the toilet. You didn't put him there. He did it all by himself. He put himself in. That's the sad fact. But you—you're the one holding the chain right now. You don't get him to come in, you're as good as flushing him down the tubes yourself. 'Cause you know, you know what's going to happen to him if he doesn't come in."

  "Why put it all on me?"

  "Because you're the only chance he's got. You think anybody else is gonna talk reason to the guy? I don't. You think any of his old pals, his uncle, you think they're gonna give two shits if he goes away for a nice ten-year jolt? I don't think so. Hell, that's college to them. They'll give him a nice going-away party, and if he gets too unhappy in the joint, maybe they get some citizen up there to stick a shank in him so he doesn't get too unhappy."

  "Why does it have to be me?"

  "Why you? Why you? Because it's your sorry junkie ass we own and not somebody else's. That's why," said Al.

  "Nice fucking lunch," said the chef, unhappily.

  "Hey, I'm sorry," said Al. "But that's where it is."

  "What am I supposed to say to him. He's never talked about any of this. It's not like he confides in me. What am I supposed to say?"

  "Listen. You go to Tommy. You take him out for a walk, you go somewhere private. You have a quiet talk with him. Just tell him how it is. Tell him how the big, bad FBI man is squeezing your nuts. Tell him how the Strike Force on Organized Crime is looking very seriously at him for accessory to murder. Ask him what kinds of problems he thinks he's gonna have when somebody shows up on a slow Saturday night at the restaurant and hands him a subpoena to go up and see the grand jury. Tell him if he doesn't get his ass down to the Federal building and start talking to us real damn soon, that it's gonna be you who goes directly to jail."

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